“Finally,” said Joëlle.
Steam hissed from the ramp of the silver TAU shuttle, parked just beside the Firebrand. The blue glow of the crystals lining the cavern bounced off the ship’s hull and the damp surface of the stone landing. Joëlle stood powerfully with her chest held high. She looked relieved. K and I fell into position beside her, exchanging glances with the others. Omega’s bare feet splashed into a puddle, though they didn’t seem to mind, and they contorted into a side stretch before straightening out once again with a gently flicking tail. Jonathan’s eyes bounced between the ground and the ramp as he paced back and forth a few feet from us. He bit his lip. I caught K frowning, but when she noticed me looking she flashed me a smirk.
We all watched the shuttle’s ramp hit the stone, and armoured boots marched down out of the ship.
One by one, twenty marines walked onto the platform. They were each covered in sky-blue armour, similar in design to Joëlle’s, though she wasn’t wearing hers at the time. The cavern echoed with heavy footsteps. They marched out in formation and formed a semi-circle around us. They each held a rifle in their hands, pointed to the sky and close to their bodies. They were fully prepared for combat. They each looked so similar in appearance, I began to wonder if they had a leader.
“Marines,” said Joëlle. “Welcome to Malum.”
She took a step toward them confidently. “Where is your captain?” she asked. “I’d like to speak with them.”
Everyone was still. The only thing that moved aside from the falling water was a small creature which skittered into the pool.
Joëlle smirked. “At ease, soldiers. I take my job seriously, but I’m not a hardass.”
The marines remained motionless.
I started to feel queasy.
“Hello?” I asked.
K and I exchanged glances. She looked just as confused as me.
“Perhaps they were not made to speak,” said Omega, glancing to Joëlle.
“Um...” said Jonathan uneasily.
Joëlle scanned their helmets, frowning. “Well if being casual isn’t your thing… I order you to speak! Where is your captain? Tell me.”
After a moment of silence, one of the soldiers spoke up. Their voice was cold. “Now, sir?”
“Yes,” said Joëlle. “Now.”
The soldier’s head turned slightly. He hadn’t been speaking to Joëlle.
“Now,” said Jonathan.
Suddenly the air was punctuated by the sound of energy rifles being armed. The TAU soldiers aimed their guns at us. Each barrel began to glow a faint red. Joëlle stumbled back in shock. Omega’s eyes narrowed. K gasped. And Jonathan calmly retreated to the shadows.
“Nobody move!” one of the soldiers shouted.
I was petrified. Twenty guns were trained on us… all of us except Jonathan. I looked at his face; his lip was perfectly straight, his eyes blank- almost blank- as he looked at us. We met eyes, and his lip twitched. He clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow.
Joëlle followed my gaze, and the look on her face was nothing but heartbreaking confusion. “Jonathan?” she asked quietly, but couldn’t say any more.
He screwed his eyes shut, and turned his face away.
K looked to me for answers. “What the hell...”
Omega faced Jonathan. “You are a liar,” they said. “You told Joëlle you called the TAU. You did not.” Their skin seemed to sparkle and shift hues, getting warmer.
I didn’t know what to say.
“But,” said K, “The uniforms!”
“...Just a disguise,” I said at last. I saw the TAU symbol on their armour, sure enough. But Omega was right. These weren’t the TAU.
A knot was tightening in my stomach. There was only one thing this could mean, though I didn’t want to believe it. There was no other explanation. They were all members of the Brotherhood.
And so was Jonathan.
My head was spinning. Jonathan betrayed us. He had been spying on us for the entire journey. Where had I first met him anyway? In the generator room of the TAU facility on Voren. Of course.
“The Brotherhood is working with the valicorr,” I said. “Aren’t you, Jonathan?”
Joëlle looked at me, wide eyed, then back to Jonathan. “You… You are with the Brotherhood, aren’t you?” She sniffed.
“What?!” K cried. She bared her teeth. “You bastard!”
Jonathan winced. He paused. He inhaled. He opened his mouth to speak.
“I trusted you!” Joëlle screamed.
“Sir,” said one of the soldiers, eerily calm. “What should we do with them?”
Jonathan hesitated. “Secure them, and the Firebrand. Bring them to the mothership… Duhrnan can decide their fate.” He locked eyes with me, then looked down at the pistol on my hip. The one he had just returned to me. He took a deep breath. His eyes met mine once more. He frowned, and his voice was low. “It’s too late now...”
I shook my head in disbelief, mandibles clenched. Even though I stood a few feet taller than all of the marines, I knew they could easily overpower me in this situation.
I had to suppress my spiralling thoughts about Jonathan. If I survived, there would be time to puzzle over it later. Stay in the present moment!
The soldiers slowly encroached upon us. K was frantic. Joëlle and Omega stood motionless.
“You’re my friend, Jonathan,” Joëlle said. “Aren’t we friends?!”
He gulped, staring at her. “We weren’t supposed to be.”
“Drop your weapons, now!” shouted a marine. The glowing rifles were a good incentive to obey, but I had to think of something. I had to make a move.
But I didn’t like my odds. Slowly, I removed the pistol from my holster. I looked to Jonathan.
“I don’t know what you expect me to do,” I said, bitterly. I cast the gun to the floor.
Joëlle simply raised her hands. She was already unarmed. Omega stayed motionless.
Three of the soldiers approached Omega. “Hey!” said one of them. “Drop your weapons, or we’ll drop you!”
Then K roared. She bent forward, her horns aimed directly at Jonathan, and charged. She was more bull than human in that moment, though she reached down to her belt and grasped the hilt of her sword. With her other hand she drew the pistol holstered on her chest. Her cloak soared behind her as she closed the space between her and Jonathan before the marines had time to fire.
But Jonathan thrust his hand forward. He stepped back. His holo-gauntlet activated, and a holographic image appeared in front of his glove. Abstract patterns and symbols flashed on the display, and he held it in front of K’s eyes. She slowed to a halt mere feet away from Jonathan, and dropped her weapons to the ground.
“I’m sorry, K. I didn’t want it to come to this.”
K’s eyes glazed over, mesmerized by Jonathan’s symbols.
My blood boiled. “What are you doing to her?!”
Two of the Brotherhood soldiers lunged for me. Each one grabbed one of my arms. Their rifles dug into my sides. They were about to do the same to Joëlle and Omega. The marines picked up my discarded weapons.
Jonathan gazed at K. “Just as a literate eye that sees words cannot refuse to hear them in the mind… you must know what the symbols mean, K. You are awakened.” Despite the gravitas of his statement, he sounded defeated.
I struggled against my captors, and the marines grabbed Joëlle. Jonathan powered down his gauntlet.
K slowly turned and looked to us. Her expression was blank.
“N-No,” I stuttered. A chill rippled down my spine, and I felt my body begin to shake with anxiety. K wasn’t herself anymore. She wasn’t human anymore. She was just a weapon. She had been activated.
But I didn’t have any more time to think when Omega sprang into action. The three marines harassing Omega were almost touching them when they thrust both hands and their tail to the underside of each soldier’s barrel. The guns fired too late: their bolts soared harmlessly through the air, and Omega wrenched the rifles from their hands in a swift motion and cast them away. Without a moment’s hesitation, Omega withdrew two grenades from their shoulder-belt, armed them, and tossed them to our attackers and their parked ship.
I blinked as flames erupted. People shouted all around. My body was engulfed in heat. The ground shook, and everyone stumbled into plumes of dust, smoke, and steam. The marines let go of my arms, and a second later the stolen TAU shuttle, which was caught in the initial blast, hissed. It cracked and flashed, sending chunks of charred metal through the air. The hull was replaced with thunderous fire, and the air was clouded with debris.
My nostrils were filled with smoke and the smell of burning plastic. Red energy bolts arced through the dust, and Omega was hit twice. But still they managed to leap safely somewhere out of view. I ducked low to the ground, and stumbled on all fours toward K through the smoke. I had no idea what to do, but getting to her seemed like a good idea.
The stones continued to rumble. I collapsed, and came face to face with a Brotherhood soldier who had fallen onto his hands. He looked up at me through a broken visor, our faces only a foot apart. I could see only anger in his eyes. No fear. He scrambled to his feet, ready to shoot, but I lunged for his rifle.
My fingers wrapped around the barrel and stock of his gun, and I pulled and spun with all of my weight. I knocked him off balance and threw him to the side. The rifle was in my hands.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joëlle being forced back to the Firebrand with half of the marines aiming their weapons at her. I was about to change course and run to her when Jonathan’s voice pierced my mind.
“Stop Omega!” said Jonathan. “Subdue them!”
I spun around. K and Jonathan were standing meters away from each other, and not far from me. Soldier’s bodies lay near them, dead, killed instantly from the grenades.
K turned toward Jonathan slowly. He frowned.
“K! Stop Omega!” he commanded, pointing into the smoke.
I took a step forward, and the earth groaned beneath me. Everything shook, and I caught myself with both hands on the wet stone. I looked up to see K and Jonathan stabilizing themselves, still standing.
K’s voice was robotic. “I have my orders,” she said.
“Osax!” Joëlle’s voice called out from behind me. I spun around. The Firebrand’s ramp hissed closed, with her inside, held by the marines. Then the engines flared to life, and it rose up out of view. But the cave was still shaking. Shards of glowing crystal splintered and rained down the shaft of the cavern, bouncing off my back like hail.
“Then follow your orders!” Jonathan said. “Stop Omega!”
A boulder fell from the cavern and breached the surface of the pool. I flinched as a huge clap of water splashed up into the air. A spray of thick droplets pelted my back. The cave was collapsing.
“You,” K said, “are not my master.”
“What?!” Jonathan cried. “I made you!” His face was a mix of terror and outrage. He was beginning to panic.
K took a step toward him, and he kept his distance.
I began to cough uncontrollably. My eyes stung from the smoke.
“K, stop!” he shouted, his voice breaking. “What are you doing?!”
K advanced, raising her hands. She glanced at the pale-blue ridges jutting from her knuckles. “The Director said you know too much,” she said. She curled her hands into fists.
The ground shook once more and I fell face first on the ground. The wind was knocked out of me. The rifle slipped from my fingers and clattered away. I looked up, struggling to breathe. Jonathan yelped. Helplessly, he fell onto his back. He winced in pain. K lost balance, but stayed upright. A large stone careened toward her from above, but before it could hit her she forced her fist through it, smashing it to dust with ease. The brunt of the tremor passed, and her gaze fell to him. He was frozen with fear. She stepped above him, and lifted her fists above her head. She was going to kill him.
“Just do it, then!” Jonathan spat, shaking. “End this already!”
Just in time, I grabbed the rifle and fired at K’s shoulder. Her fists slammed limply to the floor as her body smacked onto the ground. Smoke rose from her shoulder. I exhaled. Jonathan’s eyes were wide with shock as his gaze followed the energy bolt’s trail back to the glowing tip of the rifle in my outstretched hands. He was unharmed.
I mustered all of my energy and charged for Jonathan, dropping the still fuming rifle. I grabbed him by the arms and dragged him onto his feet, pulling him into the darkness away from the landing pad and into the shadowy cavern. I glanced back, since there was no use in looking forward into the abyss; it was too dark to see anyway. The smoke was clearing. The TAU shuttle was in pieces. The Firebrand was gone. Omega was nowhere to be seen. And K’s body, strewn between the corpses of the Brotherhood agents, shifted. She began to slowly rise. Her orange eyes seemed to glow in the cavern.
Then the roof shuddered, and stones crashed violently to the floor, sealing the light out, and me and Jonathan in.