Collection: Age of Youth//Elysian
Chronicled by: Valhel
Preceeded by: Breach
Embers flickered bright and red against the blue night as they floated up to join the stars above. A lone strix called from its rocky perch above the garage. The wind wound slowly over the desert chilling the air near freezing temperatures. Mercury, taking advantage of the smoldering Authority propaganda, had begun to warm bits of flatbread near the fire outside the bunker. He pondered how Pandora expected to get paid for burning the posters when it was intended for them to be hung around neighboring outposts.
"Keeping warm?" asked someone from behind.
Merc turned about to see Lacea standing just outside the light of the flames, tightly clutching a woven blanket around her.
"Care to join?' smiled Merc, 'I've got some flatbread!"
Merc shrugged, "It's something. Come sit."
"I'm not too keen on getting close to fires.' muttered Lacea, 'What happened in town today?"
Merc turned back to warming his dinner, "I'm not sure. When I got there Pandora was coming out of the police building with these posters."
"So we're taking Authority jobs now?" sighed Lacea.
"Well.' said Merc as he motioned to the fire, 'She also had me burn them."
"That just means they'll be after us next time we go into town."
Merc took a bite of the flatbread and said with a mouthful, "She must've been in that meeting a long time if she left before sunrise."
"Who knows what she's up to.' Lacea sat down a little closer to the fire, 'Pandora has more going on than she's telling us."
"How do you mean?" asked Merc before enjoying more flatbread.
"Come on. Shows up out of no where, secret bunker across the Styx, smuggles artifacts that she either knows exactly where to find or exactly where not to find, sticks to herself all the time, has an airship she's desperately trying to get off the ground, and regularly meets with the Authority."
"Yah, but-' squinted Merc as he chewed, 'isn't that just normal mysterious stuff?"
"That one a little more stale than you thought?" asked Lacea.
Merc's face contorted, "Little bit."
Lacea rolled her eyes, "All I'm saying is she's keeping something from us, and that means she doesn't trust us and we shouldn't trust her."
"You're just saying that 'cause you like a good conspiracy."
"It is a good conspiracy.' asserted Lacea, 'How do you think she could afford this secret hideout? How about the airship? Do you think she paid for it or stole it?"
Merc spit the last bit of flatbread into the dying fire, "You steal stuff all the time."
Lacea threw a handful of dirt at Merc, "I don't steal whole skycrafts! I steal fruit and wallets! There's a difference!"
"But you could buy a whole skycraft after stealing fruit for a couple years, you'd save a lot of money." suggested Merc as he brushed dirt from his coat.
Lacea struggled to hold her frustration below a whisper, "Merc, she's got resources and we're starving! She's got stolen equipment and she's taking work from the police's Inspector!"
"You could also sell what you steal and make money.' shrugged Merc, 'It's like re-gifting fruit."
"You're just deflecting because you like her." stamped Lacea as she stood up.
"I like lots of things. I like food. I like mysterious leaders. And I like owls."
His attempt to play off Lacea's accusation failed, the sharpshooter remaining completely unimpressed.
"You have feelings for her!" insisted Lacea.
"Who?" mused Merc.
Lacea folded her arms.
"Sorry.' whispered Merc, 'Owl joke."
Once more the strix shrieked overheard.
"Ooh!' smiled Merc, 'There's one!"
Lacea started to walk back toward the bunker when Mercury interjected, "Look, if you're so concerned why haven't you snooped through her stuff yet?"
Lacea paused, resting her hand on the the bunker door frame.
"Wait,' stammered Merc, 'you already went through her stuff, didn't you?!"
Lacea turned around, "Something's up, Merc. Something's wrong."
"Yah, like going through someone's personal belongings!"
"Oh, hush!' scowled Lacea as she brushed off Merc's indignation, 'It was your idea after it was my idea."
Lacea strayed closer to the dying fire speaking in a whisper, "Pandora's definitely hiding something. She's got this black box with weird stuff inside."
Merc raised an eyebrow, "So?"
"Strange things; a book with missing pages, a piece of broken glass, maps with no markings, and a list of names."
"What names? Our names?" asked Merc.
"Some of them I didn't recognize, but others...' Lacea looked over her shoulder before proceeding, 'Others, names of revolutionists and Authority officers. Dangerous people."
"Yes, and?" sighed Merc, exhausted with conspiracy.
"And if she's got their names, well then, maybe they've got ours. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to be on the Authority's short list!"
"We've been seen over and over by that Inspector, I'm sure if we were on a list he would've said something by now, or shot us." replied Merc.
"Then it's the other names that should concern you!' exclaimed Lacea, 'Vandals, assassins, those names and this little group is somehow tied up with them!"
Lacea stormed off to the bunker but then turned about, "And one of them called today about a job!"
"We got a job? Who from?" asked Merc as he stood up.
"We were playing cards in the bunker when that phone rang. Some Authority scientist. Pandora won't say much, but trust me, this can't be good news. Playing the Authority and revolutionists against each other won't pan out."
"At least we'll get paid, right?" smiled Merc.
"Not if we're dead, Merc!" stamped Lacea. Her face crinkled and the fading fire reflected in her watery eyes.
"I've lost people like this before, Merc. Good people, burned away in the fires of a thoughtless revolution. And the Authority will treat us no better if we cross them. This will end poorly for us all."
While Mercury's fire burned above, Pandora slept below in uneasy shadows. Her eyes twitched with dreams, turning her head in all directions with sudden movements to survey the looming sleepscape. Her hand clenched and released as if reaching for something.
And then it all stopped. And Pandora opened her eyes.
Instinctively she reached for her weapon, but her hostler was empty.
That's right, she thought, I hung the gun up before bed..
Pandora sat up on her bunk and pushed aside the rough green blanket. She turned to the hook on the door where her weapon would have been had it been there. Other things were missing too, Pandora's boots and maps, even Cossett. Thinking she was robbed Pandora stepped down from her cot, her bare feet touching the metal floor.
Strangely the floor did not feel cold, in fact Pandora noted that it didn't feel like anything.
Pandora looked over to the light above her room, casting its usual grim glow of green over the walls and furniture. Keeping her eyes on the pale light Pandora slowly walked over to the light switch and flipped handle off and on.
But the light remained, not even so much as flickering when Pandora left the switch in the off position. Yet as Pandora had flipped the switch she saw that the five eyes of her helm, set at a peculiar angle upon the desk, these five lights burned on and off in response to the switch.
This is a dream. She thought, and dread swept over her all the same.
Pandora's maps and belongings all were gone, all save the helm and the black chest.
She inched closer to the box certain that whatever message a dream could bear would wait within. Stretching out her left hand, Pandora delicately reached for the bronze latch upon the chest.
Placing a finger upon the fastening she fearfully slipped the latch free.
In that moment the air churned and droned with a horrible hissing and Pandora fell to the ground. An unintelligible voice began to whisper from within Pandora's head until it resounded booming without the room.
"And the light...shineth in the darkness...and the darkness comprehended it not!"
A sound of metal crashed with a deafening slam and all went silent again. Pandora looked up to the desk and saw her helmet tremble upon its side.
She gathered herself and crouched staring up at the helm. With a thunderous boom the helm suddenly tilted upright and turned to face Pandora. Horrified but unable to act, Pandora looked on.
The five lights of the helm began to flicker off and on until the four outer ones fizzled out leaving only the center light, the fifth eye, burning brighter than before.
"So many lost.' boomed the hollow voice, 'So many betrayals. Will one more truly stop the madness?"
Pandora lunged forward and cast the helm across the room, dousing the fifth light with a clang. She then spun toward the black chest and threw open the lid. Just as she did so a fire sparked out from her helm and foul flames ignited the walls around Pandora. Panicked, she looked within the chest for answers but within the dark walls of the box lay only emptiness.
Answerless Pandora slammed the chest shut to make an escape through the door but the pearlescent flames had already begun to consume it, melting and twisting the metal frame and door with a terrible screeching, sealing it shut.
Again the voice roared, "There is...no absolution."
Desperate, Pandora attempted to kick the door but the fires retaliated, a flash of green casting her down. Pandora winced and pulled herself to the center of the room away from the flames.
"Dream better dreams, Pandora.' she whimpered, holding her hands over her eyes, 'Dream better dreams."
"There no longer remains a sacrifice, only...judgement.' bellowed the voice, 'A fire that consumes..."
Shaking in fear and rage Pandora shifted her hands from her eyes to her ears as the fires roared at her feet.
"Plague!" she screamed.
"I...' answered the voice, 'I am with you...always."
Pandora awoke on her cot. The bed was too small for her, tucked into the side of the bunker. She reached out to touch the concave wall over her, the cramped recess provided a small sense of security as Pandora realized how uncomfortable it was. Sitting up she dared to touch her feet to the floor, and the icy chill reassured her that this was indeed the real world.
Silently she stepped toward the wall and flicked on the pale green light.
Examining her bunk, Pandora found everything was where it should have been. The stackshot was hung upon the door, boots and coat rested piled in a corner, the desk was littered with scraps of notes and maps, the chest sat inanimate, and beside this were Pandora's helm and the broken shard of mirror.
A warm glow of blue and pink slowly crept over a small portion of the desk as Cossett whirled to life.
"Cossett." whispered Pandora.
"...Good evening..." crackled the A.I.
"Scan for electromagnetic and temporal disturbances."
"All scans negative. Another nightmare?"
Pandora looked about one more time, "Thank you, Cossett, you may shut down."
Pulling out the chair at her desk Pandora sat down.
"Actually, Cossett,' spoke Pandora with hesitation, 'play audio file Valjean, first John. Light."
Cossett chirped and clicked as the old radio transmission was recalled and relayed...
"My dear Cossett. This is the message have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
The recording staggered out before Cossett switched off and the device faded into a lightless slumber leaving Pandora alone to interpret her dreams.
Her eyes ventured across the unmarked maps of the arid wilds, wandering across dried riverbeds and lightless canyons until arriving upon the wind swept dunes to the west of the Authority City. Tracing unseen steps Pandora slid her finger across the paper sands to a remote location in the wastes. After pressing there firmly for a few moments Pandora lifted her hand away revealing the luminous shimmer of thermal ink from beneath her finger tip.
"Roanoak..." she mumbled.
Pandora thought back on those that she had left there before she had jumped back through the time ways. She recalled how Petra had granted her an uneasy grace, a formality of the gospel the commander wished to represent. In a similar fashion the forgiveness of others had been guided by Petra's example, resulting in a tolerance for Pandora, a mercy replaced by suspended judgement.
They are right to do so, Pandora thought, for there was much to judge and perhaps too much to forgive. Guilt and anger swelled within her as she struggled to justify the pain.
Pandora had never intended to become the villain, in fact she had begun heroically. One of the few survivors of a doomed war having traded her life for that of her friends. But Pandora's life did not end as she had expected that day, the chemical weapons of the Authority rained down upon her leaving the young woman blind, horrified, alone, and vengeful.
Embittered, she betrayed her friends in a bid to stop the Resistance altogether, trading their lives away for the power to save them so that they might live even if they lived a lie. There were a great many things to forgive. Leading Pandora to believe that if the love and forgiveness of God was of the same kind as that of Petra and the others then perhaps there would be judgement after all.
Only Marius treated Pandora as if nothing had ever happened. The Resistance scout would go out of his way to make Pandora feel welcome within Roanoak even if she had been the enemy only days prior. But the welcome would run out, Petra sent Marius away to the city to establish a foothold. Pandora felt this was due, at least in part, to Marius' kindness toward her.
"They don't deserve their God." muttered Pandora. She shoved the maps away from her letting them drift off the desk to the cold floor.
The last embers of Mercury's fire burned out and only starlight illuminated the midnight world.
The two smugglers had endured the cold to continue shaping the conspiracy of the Authority job. Even Wrench, known for pouring extra hours into his projects, turned in after a long evening at work within the garage.
"So...' whispered Merc, '...you think Pandora is Authority?"
"Maybe.' murmured Lacea, 'She's in contact with the Inspector, and now this science officer. Have we had contact with any of the revolutionists?"
Merc shook his head, "No, I don't think so. What if she's looking for-"
A glare of pale lights pierced the shadows of the bunker, startling both Merc and Lacea, as Pandora stepped out into the night.
"Prepare a day pack,' growled Pandora from beneath her helm, 'you two have a ship to catch in the morning."
Pandora then briskly turned to walk toward the garage.
Merc stood up and followed for a few steps, "What for?"
"You're going to meet someone for me." Pandora called out over her shoulder.
Merc turned back to his friend in confusion.
But Lacea simply watched Pandora slip away into the dark garage before answering Merc,
"The Authority science officer."
To be continued...
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