Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Vermilion Years: Chapter 3 (reboot)


I watched a familiar pack of sand wolves gnaw off the tough, slimy skin of an Unman corpse. The grey humanoid’s stomach burst open, exposing the content of its last meal. The hairless mutts had no interest in the meager Unman meat, as the creatures’ musculature had evolved into a micro-fiber, thinner than their rubbery epidermis. The sand wolves pulled bits of human meat and hair from the monsters’ chest cavities. The wolves scarfed down every last morsel, consuming even the bones. The coughed up one thing: child-size metal prosthetics. Finally, I found a clear indication of whom this outpost belonged.

Returning to the camp, I searched for the package that would confirm what I already knew.  It did not take long. The fact that I had not detected a pearlescent pink box in the corner in my previous investigation surprised me. I tore off the luminescent fabric with my claws, uncovering the rusty metal box inside.

I tapped the fancy Old English letter ‘A’ protruding from the side of the box. The box churned mechanically before expelling a cloud of hot steam from its top. A rotating circle of lights raised up, projecting a crude sepia-colored hologram in the hot mist.  An outrageously ornate young girl appeared and curtseyed. Her lips began moving. Hearing nothing, I kicked the box, starting up the lagging audio. I looked back at Fleurette’s cot. She turned in her sleep, but did not wake.

“Why hello there, future friends,” cheered the hologram’s cherubic, high-pitched voice. “We come representing the Atelier Alliance, indeed we deedy-do. We’re the friendliest little friends you ever will find in this weepy wasteland, yes we arry-are. We understand you’re nudey neutral in the wars, we do dang-doodle. But you’ll listen to our sweet ol’ song, won’t you, you poopy poodles?”

Give me a break…”  I groaned.

Hearing the messenger’s saccharine gibberish instantly nauseated me.      

Dear dear little Lyonnais,
 You loopy doopy lovely place,
AA comes in pretty peace.
You have us to fear the least!
We just know you’ll let us play,
Reply, replay right away!

We’re just a bunch of girly girls,
With cherry cheeks and auburn curls.
You hate war and so do we!
Forgetty-get this and sip our tea!
Think you’re happy? No, no, no!
Thank you’re safe? Ho, ho, ho!
Take it, take it, right from me.
You’ll go bye-bye, yessiree!

Let us takey take you from it all
Kiss your boo-boos when you fall.
Kissy-kissy, we don’t want much.
Give you a hand for a tiny touch.
We want your town as a basey base.
Turn it to a real fun place!
We wanty want your—

The song ended prematurely, snuffed out by a swipe of my claw.

“What’s the matter with you!?” shouted a voice behind me.

“You had no right to smash that, Jean-Luc,” Fleurette scolded groggily, apparently more awake than I’d realized. “That message was intended for Lyonnais.”

“What you overheard was a fancy save-the-date for an incoming slaughter,” I said, turning around.

“Coming from that cute little child?” the girl scoffed. “I think not.” 

I shook my head.
 “Another illusion of your naïveté.”

“Have you considered that you might just be jaded?” Fleurette growled.

“Naturally, the hue of reality shifts from shades of rose to jade the longer you spend time with it.”

The maid’s disrespectful words resonated with more truth than she knew. Optimism. Trust. Happiness. Love. The luster of such human concepts had long gone dull for me. In the process of becoming virtually all-knowing you eliminate hope and surprise, just as immortality forgoes consequence. It’s hard to feel anything when you’ve reached such a godly level— the best argument for the existence of one. There was a time when I envied the spectrum of emotions that surrounded corporality. However, that feeling had long left me, like much else. 

“What good is your eloquence if no one understands it?” Fleurette asked me.
“Better than those who fail to grasp it.”

The human shook her head. She picked up a bird and poster packaged with the parcel. The former item was a clockwork parrot, a mechanical fowl that recorded voice and flew back to its owner. It was to be used by Lyonnais for sending its response back to the Atelier Alliance, presumably for the purpose of the AA’s amusement.  The poster was made of pheelograph film and depicted a gorgeous young girl labeled as ‘Audette.’ A pheelograph is a special type of photographs that featured highly detailed textures. When touched, the image feels exactly like whatever the image depicts.

Fleurette ran her hands down the precious poster girl’s otherworldly beautiful, ruffled gown. She pinched the tiny angel’s soft rosy cheeks. A

 “Aww, this little girl is absolutely adorable,” Fleurette cooed, uncharacteristically feminine. “She reminds me of Lady Etienne at that age. Is this their mascot? Like is she the leader’s daughter?”

“That is the leader,” I said. “Audette Atelier, evil in a tiny package. Your mistress has never been that age, nor will she ever. That’s an Im.”

“Ah, so the messenger was an Im, too,” Fleurette said. “And the other girls in the poster….”

“Not quite.”

Fleurette scratched her head.  

“At its surface, the Atelier Alliance appears to be comprised entirely of young girls, but facts supply a more disturbing explanation. As far as I know, Audette is the only Im in the organization. She indoctrinates young girls into her ranks the moment they can walk. Once these child soldiers grow out of their preteens, Audette amputates their limps and replaces them with shorter prosthetics. Modified Earth-life orbs that produce helium in addition to oxygen are placed in their larynxes to simulate a young girl’s voice. In addition to heavy makeup, cosmetic surgery is administered monthly.”    

Fleurette’s face squirmed, deeply affected by what I told her.

“T-that’s absurd…” she stuttered.  “No one in their right mind would do such a thing. I mean, mutilating people like that…”

“Audette Atelier is one rarely accused of sanity,” I assured.

“Well, whatever,” Fleurette muttered, composing herself. “If this sick group does exists, Lyonnais has a sizable militia in place. I’m sure they can handle a bunch of ‘children.’  The Unman you promised to exterminate, on the other hand, pose an immediate danger. If you make good on your word, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“You have things reversed. A million Unman is but a sneeze compared to the threat of Atelier.”
Fleurette gulped, finally starting to feel the gravity steadily pulling down Lyonnais.

“… This is something you can stop, right?” she asked me shakily.

I shook my head.

The girl’s brows furrowed and her scalded face boiled red.

“No wonder your services are free,” Fleurette snapped. “Nothing is all you’re worth.”

“I cannot sway large-scale conflicts,” I said firmly. “Once an opponent realizes I am unkillable, I’m simply ignored. I become nothing but a ghost on the battlefield.”

“Sure you can,” Fleurette insisted. “You could take out their leader. Hold a choke point indefinitely. Cleave a path through their defenses. There’s plenty of ways to put your dead weight to good use, Jean Luc.”

“Successful execution tends to lack the ease of speech,” I said. “Come to terms with the loss of Lyonnais. Immortality may preserve my life, but it does little to save the lives of those around me.”

“You mean YOU do little to save the lives of those around you,” Fleurette loudly interrupted.
I widened the eyes on my mask in reflex. Stunned, I fell silent.

“I’ve HAD IT with your fatalism,” Fleurette snapped. “You think being stuck so far in the past gives you a better view of the future? I’m afraid it simply does not work that way. By abandoning us… you fulfill your own lazy prophesy.”

Lazy? Lyonnais is miscarriage in time, a city that died before it was born. You cannot abort that which is DOA. It will fall sooner or later, with little difference between the two. Time has no regard for such a futile outcropping of humanity as Lyonnais, and I share its lack of concern. There is not much worth saving, no matter the scenario.”

“Stop talking down to me, Jean Luc,” Fleurette growled. “Just because you outlive something doesn’t mean it lacks worth. Lyonnais is completely worth saving. Are the people there a bit rough? Sure. They’re not bastions of wisdom or anything, but they’re ALIVE. Life will never stop being valuable. That’s what YOU don’t understand.”

I looked outside the cave. The sandstorm had worsened, burying the Unman remains. As impassioned as the girl’s words were, they failed to move my iron heart a millimeter. A millennia ago I may have respected Fleurette for that blazing speech, as I admit it was well formed and reasoned for one of her years. Still, she was wrong. The truth may be cold, but it’s always correct.

Grasp this,” I said hoarsely, losing my even tone to anger. “Unman. Atelier. The name changes but the fate is the same. With luck, yes, I could make a difference. What you fail to understand, is the depth of my apathy toward your cause. Keep talking and it will turn to ire. I could murder your precious lady with my own claw, so please, keep in line.”

Fleurette staggered back.

“I’m fulfilling my obligation to you,” I continued. “Be grateful I’m doing that much. I have no reason to, what with that attitude of yours. I don’t care for humanity, and I especially don’t care for you.”

The glossiness coating the girl’s eyeballs told me my point had driven its way through. My perspective was not simply pragmatic, but weighted in disdain. Humanity had wronged me throughout my existence, and its most recent transgression. Staring deep into my unfeeling, copper mask, Fleurette’s moist eyes beckoned what was left of my compassion. To her dismay, the only trace of humanity she found was her own reflection. Fleurette dashed out of the camp, leaving a trail of tears behind her. I ran after her, for some reason… regretting my harshness.

“It is still too dangerous for you to venture out alone,” I said, quickly catching up.

I grabbed Fleurette’s arm, but she tugged it violently away.

“What does it matter to you!?” she yelled back, sobbing.

I lowered my head. As it so happened, it did matter to me— though I could not determine why.

“So where are you going?”

“I’m going back to Lyonnais and do whatever it takes to protect it. I know how to kill an Unman now, so go on your way. I can teach the militia all it needs to know. Don’t you DARE help us.”

 My words had not flown over Fleurette’s head, but, rather, directly though her heart. As much as I resented humanity, this girl and the rest of Lyonnais were not the ones who wronged me. I grabbed the girl’s hand and pulled her in the correct direction. At first she fought it, but eventually she gave in. I never verbalized any sort of apology, but the girl knew. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, it became clear that I’d developed a slight attachment to the girl. Key word, slight.  Her fervent tears shook something up in me. Something I’d long believed to be unshakable. I still had microbe humanity hanging on somewhere within me after all.  When this minor epiphany dawned on me, I smiled— though I didn’t change my mask to show it.
I let go of the girl’s hand once nightfall hit, to which Fleurette responded by immediately darting off. It did take long for her to tire, taking refuge within a large circular pit surrounded by enormous rock formations. While not nearly as safe as the cartographers’ camp, the shelter of spires at least shielded her from the harsh sand gusts. As Fleurette drifted into sleep, I perched myself upon on the tallest spire to survey the area. Without much analysis, I determined our destination had been, in fact, reached. I leapt off the spire and landed beside the sleeping maid. The noisy collision ripped Fleurette from her slumber.

“Will you leave me alone already!?” Fleurette screamed, shoving me away. “For an immortal, you have the maturity of a teenage girl, I swear. When I want to follow you, you disregard me. When I try to rid myself of you… you stick to me like a leech!”

I took a defensive stance, pulling the fuming human behind me. I raised my over my head, prepping a strike.

“Jean-Luc! Hello!? What are you doing now?”

A sickening choir of curdling squeals and gurgles sounded off, reacting to Fleurette’s loud outburst. Jet black eyes, darker than the darkness opened all around us. Moonlight reflected off hundreds of silvery bodies.  The ground shook beneath our feet as more shimmering humanoids rose from the ground to join the other’s ranks.

“W-where exactly… have you led me…” she sputtered, now drained of fury and filled with fear.

“Where you wanted to be,” I said calmly.

“And where is that?”

The Unman Cradle.”

Legion after legion, Unman rose out from the ground. The Unman Cradle refers to the central hub in the creature’s subterranean network where their infants are created and stored. All Unman not seeking food gather at this point. Unman dig out a crater and surround it with a hedge of stones to mark this base of operations of sorts and to ward off other Unman tribes from entering their territory. If I were to ever make any sort of dent on the Unman population threatening the humans of Lyonnais, taking out the Cradle would be the best option. Initially, I’d planned to sweep it myself and leave Fleurette behind at a safe distance. Clearly, this did not occur. The human picked a fatal location to throw her tantrum.

“I, uh, see…” the girl said weakly. “Hop to it t-then… On with the slaying.”

“Your name is Fleurette, is it not?”

The girl nodded. I feel a slight twinge of regret stir inside me. This what our little adventure amounted to. I hadn’t felt a connection with a human in such an unfathomably long time… and this was the reason.  The stare down would soon cease. Given their numbers, I’d be hard pressed to both repel and defend.  

 “Your name means ‘little flower’ in French, an extinct tongue from which this region’s language is derived.”

Fleurette looked up at me, equal parts confused, afraid and fascinated.    

“A flower is a beautiful type of plants that came in a breathtaking array of shapes and fragrances. You can still see them in designs everywhere, but they have not grown on Earth for a great deal of time. No matter how much time passes, flowers always will represent of beauty and remain a lasting symbol of love— even outliving the flowers themselves.”

“Why are you telling me this?”  

“You deserve to know how strong your name is,” I said solemnly. “Pure as well, much like you— a commendable quality in this, the Vermilion Years. Like the flowers, when your petals drift off in the wind, Fleurette, your beauty will carry on after you.  Despite the brevity of our time together, I will remember you.”     

My kindness caused trembling to overtake the girl’s small, scrappy frame.

“I’m… going to die, aren’t I?”