“Hey. It’s going to be okay.”
No it’s not. This was a terrible idea.
Caelum gripped the steering wheel of the parked car, staring straight ahead down the street. He was dressed in the latest fashion of this planet: a tight, form-fitting, black coat that came down to his knees with dark pants underneath that. Under the coat he wore a slightly brighter, yet still dark blue shirt, but that was more meant as decoration; the coat was made to keep him warm outside while still being able to be worn indoors, and it was really the main part of the whole outfit. All in all, it was something he was completely unused to and it made him feel restricted. To make it worse, Cecilia had bought it for him, not allowing him to buy it for himself. Yes, her family was rich and he was nearly broke at this point, but it was still demeaning in a way.
The status of Cecilia’s family – especially compared to his own class – made him incredibly nervous. His palms were already sweating more than he had hoped they would tonight, and the night hadn’t even truly begun yet. Cecilia placed a hand on Caelum’s cheek and pulled his face toward her, forcing him to look into her brown eyes. Her short, dark hair was perfect tonight as always, and her eyes sparkled lightly from the reflection of the street lights and she wore a long royal blue dress. She was beautiful and flawless, and he was absolutely sure that he was in love with her, despite the fact that she was miles out of his league. It comforted him, though, to simply stop and look into her eyes. She smiled, and he smiled back. This was love, and he had finally found someone with whom he might actually be able to share a life with. And still he was putting her in more and more danger by the second for the sake of one successful relationship. It was selfish, but he wanted this more than anything.
“Really,” she said, grinning and giggling quietly. “It’ll be okay. You don’t have to be so nervous.”
“I uh…I just don’t do well with…people in general,” he said, trying to continue smiling while he stumbled over his words and his worries flooded his mind again. In honesty, it wasn’t just that he wasn’t great with people, it was just…there were things he hadn’t told Cecilia yet. He was a visitor to this planet, and he had lied about his reasons for being here; it had been a few months ago so he couldn’t remember the exact lie, but it was something along the lines of him being a dockworker. He had been working his way up to telling her the truth, but he knew it was likely to ruin everything. And there was, of course, the Machine that had been following him for the past few years. Escaping its pursuit was only a secondary goal for heading to this planet, but he had actually felt like he had managed to get off the grid for once here. Last week, that had turned out to be false. He had almost managed to forget about that in his other worries, but Auriga’s text-voice appeared in Caelum’s head to remind him.
All seems fine, C, the text began. One of Caelum’s gene-mods allowed text to be transmitted from one of Auriga’s devices to Caelum’s mind, where the mod would “write” the words in his head, almost as if it were a memory of a writing that Caelum could recall. Were keeping him stuck 4 now. Not tough. Try not 2 b 2 long. May b best if u leave. Auriga’s shorthand had always bothered Caelum, though in this scenario he could forgive it. Auriga was a master of multitasking – especially with a few gene-mods he had taken on himself – but even he would have trouble typing a message while trying to fight the sort of Machine they were up against. This particular Machine had been more…determined than any others that Caelum had met in the past. Something about the Caelum’s and Auriga’s gene-mods. Yet another thing to make tonight even more inconvenient.
“Caelum?” Cecilia asked nervously. “You’re really quiet. Like…more than usual. Do we need to postpone tonight?” He wanted desperately to say yes, but the tone of her voice indicated that would lead to other problems. She had been looking forward to this for the past few weeks, planning it to make sure it was perfect, and it would hurt her if he were to cancel. Of course, would that really matter if they were both killed tonight? Having a girlfriend made his job so much harder. I need to cancel. Life is more important than some relationship.
He couldn’t convince himself of that, though. Yes, this was a dangerous and stupid move, but something about Cecilia prevented him from letting her down – even if it put her life in danger. He couldn’t tell if he was doing that more for her or for him. Either way he was sticking to tonight’s plans, so he shook his head and smiled as genuinely as he could manage.
“I’ll be okay,” he replied before slowly loosening his grip of the steering wheel and making his way out of the car. It was a silver color, sleek and smooth with no hard edges anywhere on it. As it powered down, the blue lights running down the sides of the car and the faux-wheels began to slowly fade; the wheels were only decoration, the car being powered by small yet powerful thrusters all over the machine, allowing for free motion. Despite that, though, everything here – and on most of the replicate Earths, it seemed – were made to look and feel as though the world were still living in Earth’s 21st or 22nd century. Even galaxies away from the original Earth, the dead Earth, humanity still struggled to hold on to its roots. Caelum could respect that, but there was only so much that history could provide; advancement and evolution should be taking the place of tradition.
The car was Cecilia’s, but she had wanted Caelum to drive. Cecilia smiled and got out as well, waiting for him to walk around it to get to her. When he did, he reached out and took her hand gently, then let her lead him up to the door of the mansion before them. He was still surprised that a woman from such a rich family would end up with him; whatever his made-up job had been, it was nothing glamorous or high-class. He had really only met her when he almost knocked her over in a small café when he was picking up food for himself and the rest of the group. After becoming completely entranced by her beauty at that moment, he had asked her out on a whim, simply intending the relationship to last as long as his group’s work here went, hopefully taking him through the more dull parts of the job. They had wrapped up their work a week and a half ago, though, and he was thinking sincerely about separating from the group to stay here with Cecilia. The Machine following him made that more difficult, but he hoped they could deal with that soon enough.
They finally reached the ornately carved redwood front doors to the house, and rather than knocking, she simply let go of his hand to open the double doors with both hands in a semi-dramatic fashion and led the way in. Before stepping in, Caelum sent a quick thought-message to Auriga: You okay? He had to keep his messages short like that; anything more than a few syllables would give him a splitting headache.
“Hello?” Cecilia called as Caelum walked in the door. The foyer was resplendent, brightly lit and covered with expensive-looking decorations and paintings of dramatic landscapes, ranging from snow-coated mountains to floating islands over lush forests. Caelum had heard of such things, but he had never seen them for himself. He’d spent most of his life on and off a number of replicate Earths, never on any of the Wild planets. He was content with the comfortable and familiar life he had on places like this.
“Ah, Cecilia!” a deep voice sounded from their left. Caelum turned to see a tall man with graying hair wearing a rich suit in the same style as Caelum’s walking towards them. His coat was black like Caelum’s, but the shirt he wore underneath was a golden color. He was beaming as he looked at Cecilia, though his expression darkened ever-so-slightly as his eyes fell across Caelum. The man looked him up and down, somehow looking even more disapproving. “I know Cecilia mentioned your name at one point but I can’t remember it. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Caelum was trying to figure out if that was intentionally condescending or not when Auriga’s message appeared in his head. Fine. Shot me in leg. Taking break. REALLY dont wanna get shot again. Hes gettin close. Dont stay 4 din. Plz hurry & leave. “Ah…Caelum. Sir,” Caelum replied, stumbling over his words as he tried to control his reaction to Auriga’s message while holding out a hand to shake the man’s hand. Surprisingly the man took his hand and shook it firmly.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said tightly. Caelum thought there might have been a slight hesitation when he used the word “pleasure”. “You may call me Reginald. I assume you are treating my daughter with respect?”
“Yes, sir,” Caelum replied quickly. “Of course.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cecilia smile as if at a joke. Reginald turned back towards her, and her smile grew a bit wider and more genuine.
“Is Mother here?” she asked.
“She’ll be out shortly,” Reginald replied, gesturing for them to follow him. “She insisted on looking perfect for her long-lost daughter.” He laughed, as did Cecilia.
“Long-lost?” she asked, chuckling. “I’ve only been gone from home for a year or two.”
“Too long for parents to be without their child,” Reginald said, looking at Cecilia with the clear adoration of a father. “We really have missed you, Cecilia.” He led them back the way he had come, and a short walk brought them to a large dining room with a long table made of the same thick, dark redwood as the front door and was large enough for at least ten people. Currently, it was set with four sets of intricately gold-lined plates and matching silverware with a huge vase of flowers as the centerpiece. There was a variety of flowers, dominated mostly by lilies and a few other types that Caelum didn’t recognize; he wasn’t sure if that meant they were unique to this world or if he was just uncultured. Fancy, expensive-looking paintings were hung on the walls, and richly-embroidered curtains were hung over the windows. Rather than electrical light, the room was lit by many candles on the table and the chandelier hanging from the fifteen-foot high ceiling. Several smaller tables were set in between the windows, and those also had candles on them accompanied by small vases of the same types as the flowers in the main table’s centerpiece, just in smaller amounts.
As they entered the room, Cecilia leaned over to whisper in Caelum’s ear. “Sorry,” she said quietly, chuckling. “Father’s going to act all tough and mean to you, but he means well, I promise.” She gave him a reassuring smile and then looked over the dining room. “I haven’t had a proper meal at a proper table like this in a long time,” she said, slightly louder. As they stepped up to the table a tall woman wearing a long, shining, silver-colored dress who looked somewhat like an older Cecilia walked in from another room, smiling as she saw the three of them, even Caelum.
“Cecilia!” the woman said, nearly shouting as she quickly walked over to them, throwing her arms around her daughter. They hugged for a time before they released one another and she walked over to Caelum, hugging him next. She smelled like the rich perfume that Caelum’s mother had only worn on the most special occasions during her life in his childhood.
“That’s Caelum, Mother,” Cecilia told her. “I met him a few weeks ago and I’ve been dying to bring him home for you two to criticize.”
Reginald and his wife both laughed quietly at that, sounding almost accustomed to Cecilia saying something along those lines, and Caelum smiled nervously again, his heart pounding a bit faster. Am I more nervous about that or what may be coming? he wondered. He came to the conclusion that he needed to get out of here. His relationship with Cecilia wasn’t worth risking her and her family’s life. But then again…Auriga and the others could handle one Machine, right? He debated internally for a moment before deciding if he could afford to wait it out a bit longer.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, Caelum,” Cecilia’s mother said, releasing him and looking him in the eyes. “That’s a lovely name. I’m Katherine.”
“Well, Cecilia,” Reginald began before Caelum could reply, “you said on the phone that you and Caelum had some errands to attend to tonight, so shall we eat?”
“Yes, please,” Cecilia answered, and they all sat, Caelum next to her while her parents took the seats across the table. “We really don’t mean to rush you both, but we did have some shopping and sightseeing to do.”
“Sightseeing?” Reginald asked, surprised. “You’ve spent your whole life here. What have you not seen yet?”
“It’s for Caelum, father,” Cecilia replied, smiling. “He’s from offworld. I wanted to show him the Tower and one of the parks…I haven’t decided which one yet, though.”
“Oh really,” Reginald said, his voice growing disapproving again. “Where are you from, then?” As he spoke, a handful of men dressed in simple suits began bringing in trays of food and setting them before the four people. Even from across the room as the servants came in, Caelum could smell the food. It all smelled wonderfully rich with herbs and seasonings coating it, giving it scents that Caelum couldn’t even begin to place his finger on. But he couldn’t let himself be distracted by that. There was a chance that everyone here was in danger. Why did I think this was a good idea? he thought.
“S-45, sir,” Caelum answered truthfully. Oh, but it felt good to tell the truth after so many lies. Of course, this had to be followed by its own lie. “I’m a shipping inspector. Just here to see that a particularly delicate shipment arrived safely actually. I guess that was lucky for me,” he said, smiling and looking at Cecilia while squeezing her hand gently. The butlers removed the lids from the platters, revealing an extravagant dish that Caelum thought looked more like art than actual food.
“S-45,” Reginald asked, looking down at the food while rubbing his chin gently. “That’s primarily a mining planet, yes?” he asked.
TROUBLE. The message from Auriga startled Caelum before he could answer as it was accompanied by a loud dinging sound. That was only for emergencies. Get out NOW.
Caelum’s heart nearly stopped and one of his other gene-mods triggered, flooding his body with adrenaline, while another regulated the chemicals in his body to remove the negative side effects. Reginald opened his mouth to speak again just as Caelum was about to excuse himself to go find the restroom so that he could flee the house and hopefully save its inhabitants. Before he could, there was a terrible roaring sound as the wall behind Caelum was blown inwards.
Caelum, you idiot. He wasn’t quite sure if that was his own thought or a message from Auriga. Either way, he agreed.
He stood and spun, the gene-mods in his body reducing the amount of fear he felt – a relief after spending the past few hours feeling so afraid. He really did feel more natural this way, anyways, with the amplifications flooding his body. A ten-foot tall man stood where the wall had once been, though “man” could have been the wrong word for it. The thing was coated in heavy, black-painted steel armor, but it was apparent even with that that it was hardly a man anymore – its arms, legs, and the majority of its organs likely replaced by intricate Machinery. In its hands was a large, cruel looking rifle in the typical black, blocky design of the Machine-based Inner weapons. The face was scarred yet mostly human in appearance with a short crop of black hair on the top of its head. Both eyes were clearly cybernetic, each one a small metal orb with a glowing green “pupil” at the center. The eyes stared directly at Caelum, and the Machine’s face was mostly unexpressive, though Caelum thought he saw the faint traces of a smirk.
“Caelum,” it scoffed in a voice that sounded like metal grinding on metal as it tried out his name. Caelum wasn’t sure if it was simply an assertion or if the Machine was mocking his false codename. “Gene-modification is a blasphemy. We can tolerate it to an extent, but you have gone too far. I have been sent to end this.” Caelum turned to look at the other three dinner-goers. At some point without Caelum noticing, Cecilia had scrambled under the table to get to her parents and she hid in between them, frantically looking back and forth between Caelum and the Machine, a terrified and confused expression on her face and her brown eyes wide with shock. Reginald looked surprised, though his eyes were directed in a hard gaze at the Machine as he crouched slightly in front of Katherine and Cecilia, shielding them. Somehow he even managed to look tall and imposing while kneeling on the ground. Caelum faced the Machine down, standing his ground in front of Cecilia and her family.
I’m sorry, he thought, looking at them in sadness. They didn’t deserve to have this happen to them in their own home.
“No words, Caelum?” the Machine asked. It was definitely mocking the name that time. “Very well. I will make it quick for you. And these ones who have harbored you will pay the penalty along with you.” With that, he raised his weapon and it clicked loudly as he aimed it directly at Caelum. Caelum raised his own arm, the world appearing to move slightly slower with the adrenaline pumping through his body. A hidden bracer on his forearm glowed blue below his sleeve for a split second before it fired a bolt of energy the size of Caelum’s fist at the Machine. It effortlessly moved out of the way of the bolt and aimed its gun at Caelum before firing off a barrage of bullets. Caelum activated another of his gene-mods with his mind which triggered the bracelet again, bringing up a field of blue light in front of him which stopped the bullets from the Machine’s gun in midair. A few on the outside of the field passed by him, but he had made sure that Cecilia and her family were behind him specifically so he could block shots like that. Where are you? Caelum shouted in his mind at Auriga, his head feeling like it was splitting open for a moment at the comparatively long message. He let the forcefield drop and as he did so the bullets fell to the floor, no longer suspended in the air and completely devoid of their inertia. They were pitch black and each one was about as long as his index finger.
From behind the Machine, a large blast of light flashed toward it, striking it in the back and sending it hurdling towards Caelum. He reacted quickly and swung his fist wildly, another gene-mod providing extra force behind the hit, taking the Machine just above its gut and sending it flying back again. Even with hardened bones and skin, the punch caused pain to flare up through his hand and forearm, but it was worth it, if only for the personal satisfaction of punching a Machine in midair. He faintly heard Cecilia crying from behind him. This was a mistake. You got too careless. You’ll need to apologize to her family and end the relationship then hope Reginald doesn’t murder you. Yet another good thing he wasn’t allowed to have because of this life he’d chosen. The gene-mods were worth it though. The only salvation for the human race was through its own evolution, and gene-modification was the only viable way to accomplish that.
The Machine hit the ground heavily a good ten feet away from Caelum after being hit, nearly being sent out through the hole in the wall. Its rifle went clattering away from it as it hit the ground. From behind it, two nearly identical men dressed in the simple clothes that Caelum was used to walked carefully forward accompanied by a taller, more muscular man carrying what looked like a heavy shotgun. The two – Apus and Columba, the newest members of their group – had short, brown hair in an identical style and wore their sleeves rolled up, a variety of bracers and other tech covering their otherwise bare arms, while the larger man – Marcus, one of Caelum’s oldest friends – wore no such decorations. The two stepped cautiously around the Machine, giving it a wide berth as they tried to get close to Caelum. The bigger man stood behind the Machine, aiming his gun at it warily.
Before the two got close to Caelum, though, the Machine leapt up with a terrifying grace, snarling as it locked eyes with Caelum. Its arms quickly began to fold in and out, transforming the limbs into long blades. Within a second of the Machine standing, it leapt again, this time towards Caelum, blades stretched outwards for slashing. Caelum dove underneath the Machine, narrowly missing being decapitated by the Mechanical monster. It screamed loudly, the metallic sound of its voice working to create a sound that was nearly deafening. Caelum stretched out his right arm again and began firing bolts of light at the Machine again, followed quickly by the two with their own bracers – Marcus wouldn’t want to fire his gun with Cecilia and her family just behind the Machine, but the weaponry Caelum and the two were using were mostly harmless with a single bolt. With a barrage of light streaking towards it, the beast once again jumped towards Caelum, though it was a much more vertical jump than the previous ones, taking it almost up to the fifteen-foot high ceiling. Cecilia was still crying. A quick glance over at her showed that she was kneeling on the ground next to her parents who seemed to be doing the same. At least none of them had been hurt.
The monster landed a few feet away from Caelum, swiping viciously with its blades, snarling in hatred. Caelum barely leaned back far enough to get away and he stumbled as he tried to run backwards while he was leaned so far back.
Before the Machine could take another swipe at Caelum, Columba pointed his left arm at it and a wire with a flat metal disc on the end went flying from a bracer on Columba’s arm toward the Machine, latching onto it. The whole wire visibly crackled with electricity, and the Machine began convulsing. Columba pulled hard on the wire and the Machine was sent sprawling in his direction.
“We need to get this thing away from them!” Caelum shouted to his companions. The three of them nodded, and together all four began running towards the hole in the wall where the Machine had entered. It led straight outside, not going through any other parts of the mansion. At least they could get right out to lead the beast away.
The wire had stopped sending an electrical charge, and it disconnected from Columba’s bracer as they ran. Caelum glanced back at it. Without the electricity attacking it anymore, the Machine started to get up slowly. Caelum grimaced at that and slowed down, eventually stopping altogether, watching the Machine carefully. He had hoped the electrified wire would buy them some more time, especially considering that the majority of this thing was made of electronics. After finally getting to its feet, the Machine looked back at Cecilia and her family briefly and Caelum’s heart nearly stopped.
C, Auriga wrote in Caelum’s head. I dont think u can kill this 1. We need to get off this planet. Pull same trick we did on y90. Meet back at docks. Ship is in sect. 3.
Cecilia, Caelum thought back as he ran. He had known her for such a short time, yet he was sure he loved her. Why couldn’t it have ended better?
Im here just in the back watching. Ill make sure theyre ok, ok?
Running away from Cecilia’s mansion and into the darkness of night beyond, while painful, somehow part of this felt right to Caelum. The feeling of adrenaline and fear combined gave him life. It had always felt like life, anyways. Right now, in this moment, the feeling of adrenaline felt wrong, tainted. He had made a huge mistake, staying here for so long. The other problem here was that of the Machine; what would it do if Caelum left the planet? Would it pursue him instantly or terrorize the planet until it was bored? For now, he couldn’t think about that. All he could afford to think about was the metallic roaring of the Machine chasing him and the hope that it would follow him off the planet.
What have I done to this place?
Auriga slowly limped through the hole in the wall of the mansion. The dining room was in surprisingly good condition, save for the wood splinters and chunks from the wall that coated it as well as a few bullet holes in the table and opposite wall. A young woman who he presumed was Cecilia knelt crying with her head on the chest of a middle-aged man who lay perfectly still on the ground next to a somewhat older woman. Each of them had a bullet hole in one arm, but the girl appeared unscathed. Caelum’s shield is never big enough, is it? Auriga wondered to himself. He needs to be made more aware of that. I’ll see if I can modify the bracer’s energy output and increase the power generation to make up for that, then –
He cut himself off there. Too much thinking. Too much technicality. He needed to be more…”human”, he supposed, though that made him feel as though he were calling himself a Machine. No, he just needed to be more focused on this, on the situation, not the future. Not yet.
As he got closer, his limping made crackling sounds as he stepped on the splinters of the broken wall, and Cecilia’s head snapped up as she yelped and scrambled backwards towards the other wall, tearing the hem of her dress in the process.
“Who are you?” she asked in a high voice. The poor girl was terrified. What makeup she had been wearing was now smeared and smudged by tears.
“A friend of Caelum,” he answered simply.
The look in Cecilia’s eyes betrayed a simultaneous sense of fear, confusion, and anger. Perhaps even hatred. Auriga looked down at Cecilia’s parents, lying still on the ground. The father’s coat sleeve obscured the damage the bullet had done to his arm, but the mother’s arm was bare. Reaching out from the bullet hole in her arm was a long, red mark that looked like a rash. It was the darkest red closest to the actual hole and it slowly faded to a regular skin color once it reached the top of her shoulder. Eater bullets? Auriga guessed. He had never seen an actual injury from eater bullets, but he had heard of them. A Machine invention, they burrowed through human bodies after impact, tending to head towards vital spots; it denied any need for accuracy on a Machine’s part. Essentially, they were miniature, slightly intelligent robots that knew where to head in a human’s body. Nasty things.
Another thought occurred to him. Why didn’t it use the eater bullets on me? Why just Caelum? A limited supply? That would be a slight amount of good news amidst the bad.
“Who is he?” she demanded, snapping Auriga out of his thoughts again. He was getting distracted too easily tonight. A coping mechanism, maybe? Tears were still running down Cecilia’s face and sobs still wracked her body. “Why did this happen?”
“Caelum is…” He stopped, choosing his words carefully. He had thought many things on many occasions, and he wanted to get the words right here. “He’s a heretic and an idol. A sinner and a revolutionary. I suppose it depends on who you ask. Depends on what you ask. But either way, for both himself and for those he encounters –” for those of us who care about him “–he is a force of destruction. He doesn’t think about others nearly as much as he believes he does.” Auriga looked around at the ruin. At the broken house and the shattered family. “I am sorry that you had to find out this way.”
With that, accompanied by Cecilia’s sobbing resuming again, he turned and began limping out into the night to get to his ship so he could provide a quick getaway for the others. When he was fully outdoors, he hit a button on the small keyboard bracer on his left arm and a quiet humming began from behind him. A thin pack on his back provided lift, taking him ten feet into the air, where he began moving much faster toward the ship. He didn’t agree with everything that Caelum did or stood for, but he was a friend either way, and he wouldn’t leave Caelum and the others to die. As he flew through the darkness towards the docks, though, he couldn’t help but think about what their decisions and statements about the gene-modding and everything was doing on a larger scale.
What have we done to this galaxy?