24 · Darrin

The Darrin Civil war lasted just over a year. Anlyn spent most of that time remotely guiding missiles for Darrin I, sending them to various targets on Darrin II, especially its heavily defended orbital stations. Even though the command structures on both sides of the conflict were too fractured for any one person to have a full grasp on what went on where, how the war even started, or why it came to an end, there were many on both sides who knew of Anlyn, even if by rumor. Word of a captured Drenard, who had been left like a gift by a mysterious Bel-Tra, became the stuff of unbelievable legend. Despite the swelling gossip, and the growing doubts that soon followed to swallow them, there were many who would swear to their last day that the war would’ve ended sooner without her—but that it would’ve been a Darrin II rout.

Anlyn wouldn’t learn of this until later, long after her months and months of bad dreams and worse wakings. The pattern that formed around her made little sense on the surface. All she knew was that she had to avoid the ungodly pain the wires clipped to her flesh could bring, and so she needed to guide her missiles well. The motivation to do so—the fear that kept her senses sharp—meant her nightmares couldn’t end or let up. Her captors found themselves in a tricky game of keeping her both informed and full of fear. It meant Anlyn’s reward for her continued success was a gradual deterioration in her conditions. Her captors could be heard urging on the spitters on either side of her cell, even as they looked to her for salvation. The only way they could reward her was with more hate, lest her abilities become dulled by a diminishment of fear.

Often, as Anlyn lay on her padded table, she considered giving in to the wires and their electricity. She wondered if there would be enough pain to kill her, even though she doubted it. She would have gladly martyred herself if she’d thought it possible. She would have steered her guided missile right back around on the very installation they held her in—if only she knew which Wadi hole represented it. But her fear and the pain kept her forever running.

Over time, the nightmares changed. The Wadis completed their morph into scrambling, spitting Humans. The canyon labyrinths became mazes of cell-lined corridors. All that remained constant was the primal fear of bad things descending upon her neck and the allure of finding that safe place. It was always about that safe place, even long after she understood what sort of explosive death it meant for someone else.

Along the way, Anlyn forgot who she was. She forgot where she came from. A pampered childhood spent skipping through rooftop gardens with her cousins became a dream, something that couldn’t possibly have ever actually happened. Not to her. Wadis became something mystical that haunted her occasionally in nightmares, not something that she had once hunted. Bodi nearly transformed into the memory of someone she would seek solace beside. Nearly.

Anlyn lived in a shell. She curled into a ball when she was left alone. When called upon, she did what was expected of her with all the pent-up ferocity she could muster. She was an animal, docile and meek if untouched, embroiled and calculating when threatened. Those who could use such a thing mastered the art of threatening her and aiming her rage.

It all came to an end with little warning. Looking back, Anlyn could possibly see that her pursuers had become fewer in number, but it was all as much a blur as the blue bolts. One day, all she knew was that there were no more nightmares to make. The war was over. Now there were just papers to sign.

Anlyn was brought along to the ceremonies as some sort of display. They led her out in front of the dignitaries, and she rattled her chains dutifully. The electricity her handlers could send through her shackles kept her in line.

One of her original captors—one of the Humans in black who had watched the Bel-Tra ship disappear—seemed to be a major player in the treaty proceedings. His suit shimmered and caught the reflection of the bright stars, the alien constellations barely visible beyond the overhead dome, occluded by the new debris field Anlyn had helped create. The large gathering of Humans all stood on what was left of one of the orbital stations and seemed pleased with themselves for what their efforts had won: Two belts of barren rock, chunked and splintered and all but uninhabitable.

Some of them, of course, had won something more. Part of what Albert—the man in the shimmering suit—had won was Anlyn. After papers were signed with many pens and much smiling, he took her in the inferior ship he had bartered for to the inferior asteroid he had bartered for and bragged about having bartered so wisely.

He would be right in the long run. It didn’t take long before Anlyn’s finely honed skills and reflexes were translated to ship flight. Soon, Albert’s home and spacecraft began their steady incline of upgrades as Anlyn wrangled in more customers than any dozen pilots combined. Before long, she was the most feared thing in the most fearsome corner of the Milky Way, a thing rumored among its inhabitants but hardly believed. She was whispers in the darkness that sent chill bumps up the arms of other pilots. She was the sort of bluff that caused nervous laughter among hardened men, eyes glancing around to see if anyone believed, or if anyone else could smell their fear.

The years went by, and Anlyn gradually morphed into a thing that lived in other people’s nightmares.

All of it made possible because she could never escape her own.

•• DRENARD ••

Anlyn was leaning over Coril’s motionless body, her heart bursting with sorrow, when the Wadi lunged at her from above. She turned as soon as she heard its claws cracking stone. It flew at her in a flash of shimmering scales, catching and scattering the very shade. It landed all-claws before she could turn to defend herself, slicing into her back through her thin Wadi suit.

The toxins leapt through her veins, jolting tired and numb limbs alive with the bite of their poison. Anlyn lurched to the side, her body spasming and jerking reflexively.

The Wadi lost its grip and skittered across the rock. Anlyn spun around and tried to locate the beast before it struck again. She moved to the other side of Coril and tugged at the lance pinned beneath her cousin’s body. It wouldn’t budge. She tried to roll Coril away when the Wadi once again became an airborne blur.

Anlyn tried to move, but the creature was faster than the wind. The Wadi slammed into her chest, knocking her backward. Snapping jaws came for her neck, teeth scissoring open and shut in anticipation of her flesh.

Anlyn’s arm was pinned. She yanked it free, but her hand caught on something—her thermos. She yanked the small cylinder free and shoved it in the animal’s face, and the Wadi bit down, crunching through the metal skin and leaking what remained of her water.

The Wadi shook its head, the thermos caught on its teeth. Water sprayed out into the sunlit part of the canyon, evaporating as soon as it hit. Anlyn scrambled away, eyeing the creature and the pinned lance. The Wadi took a step forward; it rested one paw on Coril’s back and tried to use another to pull the thermos off its fangs. Anlyn didn’t think it would take the animal long to figure it out. She moved to grab the tip of the lance, but the Wadi howled in its throat and swished its tail at her. Anlyn glanced around but didn’t have her grippers, her shield, or anything.

She looked up. The edge of her shield was still sticking out over the lip of the wall, high above.

Anlyn turned and grabbed the holes in the cliff. She climbed up, willing her weary limbs to operate, ignoring the burning gashes on her back as she stretched out for the next hold. She lunged from one to the other, scaling the shady portion of the wall as fast as she could. She only glanced down when she heard her empty thermos clatter across the rock. The Wadi howled, its jaws free, and then shot up the wall after her.

Anlyn climbed even faster. Dangerously fast. She reached the edge of the shade halfway up the pocked rock and continued on, careful now to keep her body and knees off the steaming wall. She felt something brush against her foot—she pulled her leg into the sun, then looked back. The Wadi hung from a hold down in the shady part, its head bobbing from side to side as it rocked on its eager arms. Anlyn remained still, watching it. They both studied one another. Anlyn’s legs trembled with fatigue. Her suit began to heat up in the light of the Horis.

The Wadi broke away first. It darted into one of the holes.

Anlyn froze. She heard the clicking of claws deep within the hole near her head. She looked up at the shield, its razor-sharp edge poking out above. She thought about how hot it must have already gotten from sitting there so long. The clicking near her head grew louder, the Wadi worming its way through the warrens. Anlyn let go of her hold and grabbed a lower one. She raced down the wall like it was no more than a ladder, reckless and brushing against the blistering rock, the suit melting and sticking to her flesh in ever more places.

She ignored it. When she hit the shady portion, she began a half-fall, half-plummet down the face, clutching at holds just to slow her descent. Her boots hit the rock floor with a jarring thud, forcing her knees up into her chest. She dove toward Coril as a frustrated wail erupted from above. Throwing her weight into her cousin’s body, Anlyn rolled Coril to the side; she grabbed the large Wadi lance, unsure of how to even wield it. Lifting the sharp end—unable to pick it all the way up, her muscles were so weary—Anlyn kept the hook on the rock and rose shakily, looking to the sky—

The Wadi Thooo was a blur of falling claws and open jaw. Anlyn braced herself; she pulled the lance between her and the Thooo. She felt a jolt of electricity as the Wadi screamed, its open throat yelling right by her ear.

But the scream was one full of rage and fear—a wail of the dying.

Anlyn fell to the rock, exhausted and unable to hold the lance.

Something heavy collapsed on top of her, moving and groaning. She pushed herself away and scrambled deeper into the shade. When she looked back, eyes wide, fear still gripping her throat, she saw what she had done: She saw the Wadi lance had pierced the wild animal’s stomach and had erupted out its back. One last wicked groan, and then its twitching arms fell still. The Wadi was dead.

Anlyn Hooo had killed it.

••••

When Gil finally reached her, Anlyn was passed out, her head resting on Coril’s back. She had fallen asleep in the shade, her body too weary to move, the last of her adrenaline scurrying away.

Gil woke her and held his thermos to her lips. He was panting heavily from his long run around the wedge-shaped wall, his breathing dry and labored. Anlyn took deep gulps from his thermos, then pushed his hands away so she could breathe. She watched him survey the messy scene scattered around her.

When his eyes fell back to hers, the two of them sat in silence, looking at each other, no words large enough to fill the mood. Gil gave her more water, which Anlyn accepted eagerly. She held his hand while she drank, then he helped her sit up.

“What now?” Gil whispered. He worked the cap back on the thermos, his hands shaking and a paler shade of blue.

Anlyn looked back at Coril, the youth and vitality of her small frame incongruent with its stillness. All she knew was that she needed to get her cousin home, but there was no way she could do it alone. She looked to the Wadi, which was just as motionless as her Cousin, the lance still shoved through its body. From tip to tail, it was almost two paces long. Big, but not so big she couldn’t carry it.

“What do we do?” Gil croaked.

Anlyn turned to him. “We do each other a favor,” she said sadly.

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