Starlight and moonlight shone silver beams through the window to my right. I flexed my fingers, feeling at once a great release and a swelling tension in my body. The room was dimly lit, my glass long empty. I had told the story well into the night. TAU ships circled above the Great Temple, blinking in the darkness, and I waited, watching the investigator slip a stray bit of blonde hair back under her pristine hat. The story was done.
“Is that it?” asked the investigator, shuffling anxiously. Her lips twitched, and a shallow smile spread across her face. “Can I finally leave?” She eyed me, teasingly.
I nodded. “I am finished, investigator.”
She yawned, and reached her arms up to the ceiling, stretching. “That’s a bit of a downer to end on, you know,” she said. She replayed the last bit of the recording.
“And that’s the last time I spoke with her.” My voice sounded so sad.
She smirked at me wickedly. “Might want to revise the ending so it’s a little happier, you know, for your ancestors.”
My ears drooped, and I clenched my fists, glancing at the nebula in the sky. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, bitterly. I bit my mandibles.
I stood from my seat. Leaves rustled on the rooftop garden outside the window. Clouds were gathering overhead. I eyed her, then glanced to the door that led to the hall. I swallowed, then checked my holo-gauntlet.
“But really,” asked the investigator, packing her computer away into a case, “have you not had any contact with Joëlle since then?”
“No,” I said. “We had a falling out...”
She forced a frown, nodding. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. My eyes narrowed. She was so pleased with herself, and her acting was so fake at this point.
I gestured to the door graciously, grinding my mandibles. “The Temple is still empty. Our holiday doesn’t end until sunrise. The other skythers won’t be back until tomorrow, so...”
“I see,” said the investigator. She lowered her head slightly, and checked her holo-gauntlet discretely under the table. Casually, I glanced toward the window. I could see her gauntlet in the reflection; she opened a local area scanner, tuned for life signs.
Satisfied, she deactivated her gauntlet, and cleared her throat, standing up with a smile. “Look at the time!” she said. “Well, I must say, King Talcorosax, this has been an unforgettable couple of days here.”
I met eyes with her, watching suspiciously. “Indeed,” I said flatly. “Would you like me to escort you out of the Temple?”
“Oh,” she said. “That would be much appreciated, your highness.”
I bowed gently, then turned away from her and approached the exit door.
I heard her approaching me from behind.
Then I felt something cold against my back. My skin crawled as I heard the unmistakable whine of an E-gun powering up.
“Don’t move.” Her voice was cold.
I stood completely motionless. My heart rate began to increase. I was completely unarmed. Her E-pistol was pressed hard against my back.
“What-” I began. “What are you doing?” I asked, timidly.
She snorted a laugh. “Oh, ‘Osax,’ you made this too easy!” She cackled. “All alone in the Temple? No one around to notice if something were to happen to you?”
I began to tremble slightly. “I- I don’t understand...”
“Of course you don’t understand!” She couldn’t stop herself from laughing. “You, all this time, you really believed I was sent by the TAU?” She paused. “Get on your knees!”
I complied, shakily. The floor was hard against my bones. With her gun still at my back, she leaned her head over my shoulder, and grinned viciously.
“B- But, if you’re not with the TAU...” I trailed off.
“Talcorosax,” she whispered. “I’m with the Brotherhood.” Her voice was like a snake.
My veins swelled with adrenaline. My ears sank in fear. “But, the Brotherhood were defeated! The TAU purged them from their ranks.”
“Not all of them,” she hissed.
“What-” I shook, panting. “What is your plan? Why are you here? Why did you listen to my story if you were just planning to take me hostage?”
She laughed. “Oh my. You really fell for it.” She chuckled. “You’re so weak. Weak, and idiotic-”
“Don’t insult me!” I shouted.
She pressed the gun harder against my back. “Oh no, your highness. You’re not in control now.” She leaned her head over my shoulder once more. “Now you have to listen to my story.”
I clenched my fists, growling slightly. That seemed to make her even more content.
Good, I thought.
“You’re a hero, Osax,” she said. “Just like you said. People worship you. Not only are you the King of Astraloth... you’re the saviour of Earth. Everywhere you go, people are willing to wait on you hand and foot. Heavens, they’ll do anything you say.” She chuckled. “Well, not us, of course. But that’s beside the point.” Her voice was sharp, like a knife. “You have power, Osax. You just don’t know how to use it. But your image... your identity could command the galaxy, if wielded correctly.”
“My... my image?”
“Precisely,” she said. “Your mother said it well enough. What was it? ‘Your every word will have the power to change people’s hearts.’ Well, she was right, more than she probably knew.”
I grimaced. “What do you plan to do with me?”
“Oh, my story isn’t done,” she said, scoffing. “You had me listen to your sob-story for days. At least give me a few minutes to gloat about my accomplishments.
“You see,” she continued, “the Brotherhood wasn’t too happy when you destroyed the Silencer. We were going to stop the Shade Beam ourselves. And we would have used that praise to seize power, and usher in a new change for the world.”
“You couldn’t have stopped Duhrnan even if you tried,” I spat. “We only succeeded because of our teamwork, our trust. The Brotherhood is built on lies. We won because we believed in one another-”
“Fool,” she said. “You succeeded because of dumb luck. In any case, your victory certainly put us at a loss... but Ryner had other plans in motion.” Her lips spread in a freakish grin.
“What... plans?” I asked, trembling.
“Oh, you would like to know, wouldn’t you?” She roared with laughter. “I see no reason why I can’t tell you. You’re going to die soon, anyway.” She paused. “Oh, it feels so good to finally get this off my chest...” She couldn’t stop laughing. “You remember the ‘Sheep’s Clothing?’”
“Of course I-”
“Now imagine a world where the leaders of the galaxy all agreed on everything. Wouldn’t everything be so perfect? So peaceful? Everything would be run so smoothly, decisions would be made without conflict. But that kind of ideal isn’t possible, is it? Because some people know what’s right and others don’t. But, what if the leaders of the world did agree? What if they agreed, because they were all controlled by the same person?”
My spine tingled, and a shiver ran through my body. My ears tensed. “You mean-”
“Yes. What if the Brotherhood were to replace you with a clone... one we could control. A wolf grown wearing ‘Sheep’s Clothing?’ He would be our sentinel, watching over the skythers.”
My heart skipped a beat.
I looked back at her, over my shoulder, arms tense. Her gun pressed against my back. “You mean to kill me, and send a sleeper agent doppelganger to the throne of Astraloth in my place? One who works for the Brotherhood? So the Brotherhood can control Astraloth?”
She sighed with satisfaction. “Now you’re getting it,” she said. “Do you see why I had to hear your whole story?” she asked. “Why I couldn’t settle for just some of it?”
“No,” I said, honestly.
She rolled her eyes. “I came here to assess your social life.”
“If you were socially isolated,” she said, “it would be no problem replacing you with a clone. There wouldn’t be any one to notice minor discrepancies.” She giggled through her teeth. “Well, turns out you’re all alone; it really won’t be a problem. But when I heard about the skyther’s ability to recount stories word for word, I knew that I had to stick around for the long haul. Every detail of your story needed to be recorded-”
“That’s why your motivations seemed to shift,” I growled. “You were just saying whatever you could to make me finish my story.”
“Precisely,” she said. “Bravo, you’re figuring it out! I just needed a recording of your story, direct from you, to feed into your clone’s brain. That way if your replacement ever got asked about what happened during your finest hours, he would have a response.” She smirked. “Clever, aren’t I?”
I felt my blood begin to boil with rage. “You’re sickening,” I said. “Can’t you see that whoever is leading the Brotherhood will just use these clones to get whatever they want? Your leader isn’t benevolent. Whoever they are-”
“Oh, and I supposed you’ve met Ryner?” She paused, mocking me. “Oh, that’s right, I remember. You haven’t met him, you said so yourself.”
I scoffed. “Ryner is dead. He was on the Silencer when we destroyed it-”
“Wrong,” she said. “He survived.”
Though I had never seen him, images of a tall, gaunt man filled my mind. With wispy hair, he stood in the darkness, hands outstretched. Thin threads dangled from each finger, and at the bottom of each thread was the cross of a puppet. Those puppets had more threads, spiralling down to even more puppets. A whirlpool of tangled wire connecting hundreds of puppets together, being sucked closer and closer to the center of a black hole, while Ryner laughed...
I looked back at her, aghast. “How,” I said. “After hearing my entire story; after hearing about Jonathan... how can you still work for the Brotherhood? How can you believe that they have anything to offer you?” I was enraged, for her sake. “You know Ryner will kill you once he’s done with you! How can you be so blind?! How can you still follow him?!”
She stared at me with malice in her eyes. “I live for the Brotherhood,” she said, plainly.
I stared into her eyes. Her face seemed somehow distorted and lifeless... like K, when she had been ‘activated.’
You’ve already been replaced. The thought hit me, and a creeping sensation rippled through my body. The TAU had purged their forces of the Brotherhood. But without their knowledge, their personnel were slowly being replaced by sleeper agent clones. My eyes shifted to the window, and the fleet of TAU ships that circled overhead like vultures.
“Yes,” she said, noticing my gaze. “They’re Brotherhood too. In fact, our entire fleet is hovering in Astraloth’s atmosphere right now. So don’t think about trying to escape. You have nowhere to run. And now that you know our plan, we will have to kill you if you try to flee. It will be easier to make a clone with live tissue, but we can use your corpse if necessary...” She smirked. “And by the way, if you send for help, we will bomb the city.”
My heart stuttered. “No...”
“Yes,” she said, ominously. “Now get up. You will come with me to my ship.”
I stood cautiously, shaking. “Where will you take me?”
“To the planet Viperion,” she said.
“That picture you found on our researcher’s computer on Malum? With the loro, standing above the valicorr? That was taken on Viperion, at the loro’s old valicorr cloning facility. Which is now our home base. The labs there are perfectly suited for our needs.” She gazed at me, smugly. “Now, move.”
She pressed the gun into my back, and I moved with her. She opened the door, and we stepped out into the hall.
Our footsteps echoed as we walked down the empty corridor. I waited tensely. Now would be a good time...
Suddenly, in a flash of movement, a red-tipped tail swung down from the ceiling and swiped the E-gun clean out of the investigator’s hands.
Without missing a beat, I spun around as soon as she was disarmed, and with a solid fist punched her hard in the gut.
Her hat flew off her head, and she stumbled backwards onto the floor, completely shocked. I couldn’t help but lift my ears and squint in delicious vengeance.
“Hah!” I exclaimed. Then I turned my gaze upward.
They dropped from the ceiling with surprising grace. Omega effortlessly transferred the gun from their adhesive tail to their right arm. Their left arm was a stump at the elbow, the colours faintly shifting at the end. They wore a skyther skirt around their waist; their chest, arms, and face were exposed. They gripped the carpet gently with their paw-like feet, their tail flicking around with excitement. Their black, circular eyes blinked innocently, and their lips curved into a smile as they inhaled through the spotted skin of their face.
“There is your favour,” they said flatly, their red tongue flicking out.
I couldn’t help but grin. “Right on time, too,” I said. They had come to my rescue after all. Omega aimed the gun at the investigator, who crawled backwards in fear, glancing between us. It felt so good to have them here with me.
“What?” She stared at me. “But you were so scared-”
“I was pretending,” I said, breathing calmly and smirking.
“How did you know?” she asked. “How did you plan this?” She looked genuinely confused.
“The skyther muggers,” I said. “I never told anyone about them. But you knew.”
She slowly shut her eyes and clenched her mouth shut. “Dammit,” she said.
“I bet you hired them to capture me for cloning, before realizing you might need to hear my whole story... I guess it’s hard to call off a band of mercenaries when you hire them anonymously.” I hesitated. “Or maybe you would have been fine with capturing me prematurely.” I shrugged. “Well, they failed, anyway. And now, thanks to Omega, so did you.”
“But-” she said. “But, you said Omega-”
“I said Omega detonated a belt of grenades inside a myrok,” I replied. “Which is true.” Omega, eyes fixed on the investigator, nodded in agreement. “I may have left out the part where, weeks after the battle of Earth, they called me from an abandoned Brotherhood base on Malum, asking for help, and I picked them up and brought them back here.”
“But, how?” asked the investigator. “How did they survive?”
“I was designed to survive,” said Omega in their nasally, monotone voice. “My cells were clustered together inside the skin of the myrok; I regenerated and crawled out.”
The investigator’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Why didn’t you tell me during the story?”
“Because some heartless TAU politician agreed that people should be judged based on how they were born, rather than who they are,” I said. “And as a bioweapon I had to keep Omega a secret, even from a TAU investigator. Not that I really believed you were one.”
The investigator stared at me, then slowly smirked. “So,” she said. “You are a liar.”
I stood up taller. “If it means protecting my friends and upholding my morals... then yes.” I smiled, confidently. I knelt down beside her, and removed her holo-gauntlet. I turned and passed it to Omega.
Then searing heat blasted my shoulder, and I yelped in pain. My heart jolted as I spun around to face the investigator. She had withdrawn a hidden E-pistol from her uniform pocket, and shot me in the back.
Without a moments hesitation, Omega fired. A bolt of energy hit the investigator. She collapsed, motionless.
My knees buckled, and I panted. The pain throbbed in my shoulder, and I was having difficulty concentrating. Omega knelt beside me, tilting their head to the side. “You are hurt,” they said.
“Yeah- Ah!” I winced. “Omega, we have to go,” I said.
They blinked at me inquisitively. “Where?”
Omega helped me stand in the dim, carpeted hall. My left arm felt limp, and I decided not to try moving it for at least a few minutes. I met Omega’s eyes. “To stop the Brotherhood, to stop Ryner and put an end to this,” I said. “To the planet Viperion.” I started walking down the hall, and Omega, looking once at the investigator’s body, decided to follow me. “I should have known the Brotherhood would still be around..."
I started jogging, Omega keeping pace. “But,” said Omega, “You will miss the skyther holiday.”
I waved my right hand dismissively. “I made it up,” I said.
Omega blinked. “You made it up?”
“Yes,” I said, panting. “I ordered the workers at the Temple to take a few days off. I wanted the investigator to feel as comfortable as possible so she would definitely spring her trap,” I said. “I was hoping she’d gloat about her plans... I can hardly believe it worked!”
Omega looked forward, easily keeping pace with me. “You are clever.”
“And thank you for looking after me,” said Omega. They tilted their head toward me.
“Of course, Omega,” I said. I was hit with a pang of regret. “Sorry I couldn’t bring you food as soon as I wanted to,” I said. “Those muggers blasted one of the containers, and I gave the other one to a skyther, who looked like he needed it...”
“It is alright,” they said. “I survived.”
“That you did, Omega,” I said, eyes forward. “That you did.”