Thanks to Bataav for participating.

Intaki Prime – Southern Hemisphere – Eionell Estate

Bataav woke unexpectedly from deep sleep but did not stir. The temptation to open his eyes and sit up was just a dull remnant of instinct easily ignored thanks to years of discipline and skill. To any onlooker he would have still appeared lost in his dreams.

Instead, he stretched forth his senses. A gentle inhalation told him the room smelled the way it should. The light sheet covering him from the hips down was undisturbed. Beside him, Sakaane’s breath was slow and even. She remained asleep, her hand resting lightly on his bare chest. Beyond her, their room was quiet. Yet, something had awoken him.

Flash! Brilliant white light illuminated his closed eyelids and was gone before they could squint in reflex. A greenish-blue afterimage convulsed against the back of his eyes in strange, gradually-fading shapes. After the span of a few heartbeats, the rumble came and he relaxed, wondering if there would be any rain this time or if the storm would blow itself out as nothing more than heat static.

The thunder disturbed Sakaane and she rolled over, sighing softly, but didn’t wake. Bataav took the opportunity to shift closer. The exposed skin of her back felt cool against his front when he wrapped his arm comfortably around her. His lips briefly brushed her shoulder as he settled in.

Another flash, another rumble. And then another. The storm was rapidly approaching.

Carefully, Bataav opened his eyes. He had heard something… Something like a low scraping, sliding quietly, but not quietly enough, under each clap of thunder.

Flash! The wall he faced lit up with a rectangle of light. Shadows played across it and then were gone, swallowed by the night. Behind him were glass doors leading to the second floor balcony. They’d forgotten to draw the curtains for the night.

Flash!

Bataav sat up and twisted around on the mattress, simultaneously opening his implant feeds and shifting attention to the estate’s security net. Data streamed into his head: no alarms had been tripped and the staff were asleep in their rooms. His team had been at their designated posts… He felt a cold tightening in his stomach. Someone was missing, hadn’t reported in. The commandos were already on their way to investigate.

And the shadows on the wall had been different, as if something large had been moving on the balcony and now was gone. He stared at the doors, shrouded again in darkness, and willed the sky to be split once more by lightning. He didn’t dare switch on a lamp.

The sky remained dark, an inconvenient lull in the approaching front. At length, the hot, acrid odor of something burning assaulted his nose. No…melting, he thought as a bubbling sound reached him.

Sparks exploded inward and the glass shattered. Sakaane jerked awake with a yelp. The carpeted floor caught fire; wind roared into the room.

Intruder! Bataav’s thought burst into the security net as he leapt from the bed, snatching up the bed sheet and wadding it into a ball to stamp out the fire. Lights came on and sirens screamed throughout the estate. Sakaane scrambled after him.

“Careful. There’s glass,” he warned a moment later, frowning at the smoking blotches of carpet while reaching for his night robe.

“What’s going on?”

Shouting elsewhere in the house and the loud rapport of gunfire outside answered her. Grabbing her own robe, Sakaane rushed out to the hallway and into the next room. It had been last used years ago as a playroom for her brothers; she and Bataav had yet to decide what to do with the space. But it, like the master bedroom, opened onto the balcony.

Bataav pulled her back. The lights on the second floor went out at his mental command. “Wait,” he counseled. “I know the urge to rush is strong, but you must go forward slowly. Don’t reveal yourself to those who might be watching. Come, like this.” He took her hand and guided her to the side of the room, out of line of sight of the balcony, and was pleased at how well she followed his lead by crouching down and slinking forward. Once at the door, another silent command unsealed the lock. At Bataav’s touch it slid quietly open.

He waited. There was no movement outside, just the roar of guns and the storm. He risked a glance around the doorframe. The balcony was empty.

He looked over his shoulder and waited. Lightning flashed. The playroom was also empty, save for old toys and the ghost of memory; no one had snuck around behind them. He gave Sakaane’s hand a reassuring squeeze and then led her outside. The railing was a low wall of solid stone; they crept up to it and cautiously peeked over.

In the jungle surrounding the manor, muzzle flash backlit the trees, mocking the lightning overhead. His men were moving away, in pursuit of the intruder. A grenade exploded, followed by the sharp whine of engines spinning up. A moment later a small craft shot into the air, its hull immediately pelted by glowing tracer fire.

“There’s a hole,” Sakaane whispered, pointing. “There. At least two of the perimeter guns aren’t firing. It’s going to get away.”

“Mhmm.” Rising to his feet, Bataav watched the last of the tracer fire chase after the escaping ship, which disappeared into the low storm clouds only partially damaged. The datastream told him his people were now moving toward the unresponsive turrets and looking for their missing teammate.

He turned to the ruined glass doors. Sakaane stood close to him, following his gaze. The wind pulled at her sleep-tousled hair and the silk robes they both wore. The heat storm had arrived; lightning flashed every few seconds and the thunder rolled, taking over where the gunfire had left off.

“He burned through the glass as a delay tactic,” Bataav said. “It gave him time to get off the balcony and into the forest. He’s getting bolder.” There was no need to identify who he was. They knew simply by looking at the floor. Crouching again, Bataav brushed aside a pile of shards laying on top of a large brown envelope. The envelope was taped to a sheet of glass, the largest piece to survive. The glass’s bubbled edges showed where a putty compound had been applied and burned through before exploding up and outward on contact with air on the other side. As their eyes adjusted to the dark they saw a few small holes marring the envelope where fire had touched it.

He contemplated the envelope, but when Sakaane started to reach for it, Bataav tore it free and stood, slowly ripping it in half, then in half again, and again, until the pieces were too small to tear. “Enough,” he said quietly, clenching his fist over the paper and the photo that had been inside. “This needs to end. This shouldn’t have happened.”

Then he looked at her. She was pale and shaken, but he saw something changing in her expression. Her hand brushed over torn paper sticking out between his fingers. “There’s only one way this can end…permanently.”

He nodded. “I will do it.”

Sakaane looked out into the night, toward where the firefight had taken place. The guns were silent now, but in her face he could see she was imagining the commandos running between the trees, their dark gear concealing them from sight. She was remembering the training he had been giving her, and recalling the advice he had whispered in her ear just minutes ago.

She looked again at the paper in his fist, at the glass piled at their feet.

“I know who and what you used to be, now,” she said slowly. The storm drowned out her words, but he heard them all the same through the persistent comm link they maintained. “I realize why you didn’t tell me for so long.” She fell silent.

A slice of unease flickered through him.

Finally, she shook her head. “I don’t want you to do it.”

The lights came back on just then. Aranza, still on the lower level of the manor, was calling out for them.

Bataav pulled away from Sakaane and went inside, through the playroom. He’d shared this part of himself with her earlier that year, the part he’d kept secret from everyone else. She had felt deceived; he had felt rejected. A rift had been ripped between them, and here it was again, yawning wide open.

Her hand on his wrist stopped him. He turned back and was surprised to see her green eyes smoldering with anger, but not at him. She’d gone cold and hard in a way he’d not seen in her before, but recognized all the same. He searched her face and saw grim determination there, and beneath it, acceptance and understanding. Her fingers slipped from his wrist to grasp his free hand tightly.

“We will find him,” she said, “and we will do it.”

He smiled, not without a bit of long-awaited relief. “I will show you how,” he said, and dropped the shredded envelope and photo into a trash can, where it was instantly vaporized.