Chapter 17: Shadows and Fire (Separation and Love)

17

Appetite

Shadows and Fire (Separation and Love)


“I brought the pieces together. I tore down the bars between you. Praise me ‘cause you owe me one.”  Ignace Breaux


Appetite could safely say that he was getting his butt beaten. There wasn’t much he had to add to that.

Reinforcement for them came in droves over the city. A few smaller ships darted above, dropping off more and more of the invaders from beams of light.  In the distance, a larger dreadnaught hovered on the horizon. They were steadily getting pushed further and further back from the CEO building and the surrounding areas. After a time, they might just lose the city altogether and crushed by the sheer force of numbers. Appetite couldn’t worry any of that right now. Right now, he had to worry about himself. His folk had eyes, they could see if they were outmatched.

Maybe he needed to learn that himself. Captain Xan gave him no mercy in this fight. If he’s focused on me, then he ain’t goin’ around kill my folk. That was the silver lining in all this. Didn’t mean that he liked it that much. He stood from the rumble he was lying in, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth.  He got him good again. The skinny bastard hit ‘em with an energy blast that knocked him almost a mile away and barreling into an old parking garage. Without his mutation, he would’ve been dead to rights. He wasn’t invincible though. He still felt the ache of his missing fingers on his one hand and the throb of a wound from one of the burning swords on his side.

In a face to face fight, fist to fist, he could get him without a problem. Appetite knew his own power and limits. Taking him down and ripping him apart would’ve been a snap. The facts remained that the Captain knew that and played to his own strengths as a ‘droid.  “It is what it is” was what his father would say. Not everyone’s gonna play ball on your court.  Appetite centered himself, ignoring the bloody mess of his body. He reloaded Ham Bone, back out into the street. I’m gonna get you, boy, he thought, choking down his frustration.  Got way too much to live for. Appetite rolled his shoulders, watching the Captain walk down the empty high, dragging his two ice-colored laser swords behind him in a small trail of fire. Intimidation. Fear. That was what he was playing on.

Appetite wasn’t gonna give that satisfaction.

Not to say that he wasn’t scared on some level. There were things he wanted to see, people he needed to see. Kindle could handle herself, live on without her ol’ pa. The thought of her alone still terrified him. He wanted to see her grow, maybe have a family of her own one day. He wanted to see her go off and find herself. Being a teenager was already confusing enough. She didn’t need to do that without her pa. She’s safe with Remy, she’s far away from all this craziness. Maybe it was best that she went with the other side of the family.  He pushed the thought from his head. Going down those roads made it sound like regrets. I’m gonna live through this. I’m gonna see my daughter again. And maybe her again.  He pushed that thought away further than the other ones. That last trial of thought was a good way to get himself killed.  Appetite squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest. Got somethin’ to live for. Gotta make it.

The Captain approached.  The scraping of the laser swords raked against the air with every step. Thin wisps of smoke spiraling into the air near his face, splitting around his sharp nose. There was nothing left in those eyes now. All pretenses of human emotions were dropped, leaving a cold residue of a machine executing a directive. He didn’t see a living thing right now in Appetite. He saw an objective, a neat empty box waiting for a check mark. How did a ‘droid rise the ranks of the Bluecoats? By doing the job and doing it well. An impressive thing if he wasn’t being a kill-bot at this very moment.

Captain Xan swung his two hard-light blades, slicing from impossible angles all around him. Appetite tried to keep up but going against a machine with the ability to calculate outcomes on the fly.  But why the blades instead of a gun or that deadly gatling? Did he deem his other weapons unfit for his opponent? Didn’t matter. Appetite caught him in the middle of a swing with a close ranged buck from Ham Bone, a tricky shot without a few of his fingers. The pellets slammed against the man’s wrist, knocking it back when it should’ve torn it off. No matter. Appetite took a chance he got. He headbutted the Captain right between the eyes, knocking the droid back and the shooting him square in the stomach. Not even a flinch despite his mechanical insides flopping outside of his stomach. The Captain swiped with his uninjured hand, slashing at his neck but catching Appetite’s wide chest instead. Blood and heat. Burns and pain. He wasn’t going to quit.

Appetite slammed the butt of his shotgun into the ‘droid’s chin with the full force of his power.  His opponent’s neck cracked and spun into a sick angle, his head turned in a direction no head should go. Didn’t stop him. Captain Xan spun, ducking the next blow from the shotgun blast and slashing Appetite’s legs. Appetite jumped back, shoved his shotgun under the droid’s armpit and blasted it off.  The arm and the sword it carried flung into the air. The Captain’s empty socket sputtered wires in all direction, slick silver oil guttering and spitting on to the ground. Not the first time Appetite had done that to someone. Sometimes a man gotta treat their opponent like dinner meat and go for the joints.

Captain Xan snapped his neck back into place and kept going at him with his remaining sword.

The cold calculation of his eyes faltered into a small spark of very human fear. His swings became wilder. Panic. Appetite recognized it, hungered for it. The animal part of him, the one that traveled away from C’dar for a while, awoke again. He wasn’t that meek and quiet big boy. Perhaps they were monsters. Only monsters enjoyed things like this. Fear became a lost concept. His heart throbbed; his head pounded in his skull. He felt every vein in his body pump blood into his body in a rush like a river underneath his skin. Xan came down with a downward slash, expecting to cut through Appetite’s defense. Without thinking, Appetite flung up Ham Bone. The sword sliced through the gun with ease. A sad loss but better than his life. That didn’t matter right now. None of it did.

He grabbed the Bluecoat by the arm, pulled him close, and ripped out the man’s throat with his teeth. The taste of synthetic flesh, metal and oil filled his mouth. Not the same as blood but the taste wasn’t half bad. Much more delicious was the surprise on the droid’s face. Hundreds and hundreds of calculations didn’t predict that. Appetite, without a second of hesitation, then proceeded to pull the man’s other arm. Every pop of a broken wire brought an unimaginable amount of sick joy to Appetite’s mind.  The man couldn’t speak anymore. He had to watch in silent horror as Appetite ripped his remaining arm from his body. He held it for a while, watched it thrash helplessly in the grip of his arm. He held it for a while, opening the man’s fingers to take the sword from the man’s limp arm.

Armless and voiceless, Xan moved his empty shoulder. A wide gatling gun shoved its way from the cavity and pointed itself in Appetite’s direction. Would you give up, Appetite wanted to shout. He had already begun shooting before Appetite could even say anything. Red laser splashed against the surface of his hardened skin. While they did hurt and burned the red fur on his skin, they weren’t enough to pierce his skin. That explains why he didn’t open with that number. While his father’s hide was susceptible to attacks like that, Appetite’s wasn’t. Evolution or natural adaptation or some sort of mutation difference, he didn’t know.  He would be fine if he didn’t change to–

Old World ammunition.

Crap.

Appetite noticed it too late. A stream of old world bullets sprayed from the man’s gatling now at a rapid rate of fire. Only by sheer luck, Appetite managed to leap over an abandoned car nearby He felt the familiar pain of open bullet wounds against his shoulder and right leg. He was too big of a target to avoid all of it. Appetite growled, hunched behind a car he was barely smaller than. Dozens of bullets bounced off his red-brown rusted shield, punching holes here and there but standing firm all the same. The sounds soon became deafening, thick over the whole area in a sharp pitter-patter of metal rain. This wasn’t going to stand for long. Eventually, the cover was gonna give way and he was gonna be a big open target. No matter of shield or layers of mutant fat was gonna keep him alive at that rate. He swallowed his nerves and flicked the sword. Without Ham Bone, the roles were flipped. He already missed his shotgun.

Chin-chunk. Plink.  A reload.

Appetite rushed out of cover, faster than a man his size should move. He felt his legs burn hot from all the motion. Bullet wounds, cuts, bruises all flared up down his body. Still, he pushed. He pushed deeper than anything he ever felt before. He was running out of time. Without any more calories to burn, he was gonna lose the only advantage he had. He needed to end this now. He rushed at him, the Captain’s own hard-light sword coming down on its former owner. He hoped to cut him in half but sometimes you didn’t get what you want. The android pivoted at the right time, kneeing Appetite in his big belly. A burst of agony rippled in Appetite’s stomach, vomit and blood. threatening to spew all over his shirt. He tumbled to the ground, clutching his stomach and trying to catch a ragged breath in his diaphragm. Tears of pain rolled down his eyes. Chin-chunk. Reloaded. He dug deeper and didn’t find a single drop of energy left. This was going be it if he hadn’t thought of something. I’m sorry, Cassie. I done got myself killed.

Funny how every regret and every pain came to the surface when a man touched regret.

Then, nothing.

Nothing but a loud clunk and hungry snapping of wires.

Appetite opened his eyes to see a shorter woman standing over the dear Bluecoat Captain’s halved body.  The android whined voiceless sounds and clawed at the woman’s feet with dead wires. She cleaved his halves into quarters with an axe much larger than she was. She shouldered the axe and laughed, a familiar sweet sound from years ago.  She turned to him, her warm dark skin glistened sweat on her brown, dark curly hair rolling down the side of her round cheeks. She extended her hand. Appetite felt his heart twist and turn in his body. It can’t be. No. No. No. Now. Here. Why now? Tears bubbled to his eyes. The pain of seeing her made every physical pain he felt right now feel insignificant. He reached towards her with bloody fingers. It felt wrong. She shouldn’t see him like this. He should be angry. All he felt now was relief. “Ina…?”

“You’re lucky that I was in the area and couldn’t watch you kill yourself, you moron.” It was her. Appetite gawked at her, blinking and expecting her to disappear. She didn’t. She stayed. “Are you gonna stop staring or what?” Her voice was smooth, soft, low. “What were you thinking trying to fight a mutant killer model alone?”

“Is that all you gonna do after not seeing me for years? Nag?”

“I think I deserve right after saving your life, you big idiot.” She punched him in the shoulder and Appetite yelped. “Sorry…” she said. Whether that was for the punch or going incognito for fifteen years, he didn’t know. “I’ll explain after all this is done. Can you stand? We got things to do.”

He, in fact, couldn’t stand.  Quite the opposite, he fell out before he even had the chance.

***

Appetite awoke in a ship flying over the city under the dancing green lights of a healing station. He had never been in one before. It tingled and stung a bit each time it swept over his body. Smaller yellow lights worked at small wounds, picking at him and stitching his skin back into place. He looked around, eyes darting from one side of the chromed surgical room to the other, feeling like the mouse of a lab experiment. The lurching and swaying of the small vessel helped little. The faint scent of antiseptics and blood danced on the surface of the air. He swallowed his fear. Old backwater boys often didn’t like spaceships, especially infirmaries filled with nasty looking equipment. Putting them together made every hair on his body stand up in fear.

“Don’t move.”

Ina paced the infirmary of Sundancer, looking down over the city of C’dar from the window. The small ship only had a few rooms in it: the cockpit, the small infirmary, the mess room, and the sleeping quarters in the far back. The morning sunlight colored core that housed her AI, Kaulu, spun its tall glass container completing task throughout the ship. The small core hummed and sang its familiar song. Appetite blinked. He recognized the ship now his mind has calmed down but, he still didn’t want to be here for numerous reasons. Two were at the forefront.

Appetite rose, heart pounding. His family was still down there. He needed to get back, he needed to. Hiss-clink. A needle shoved itself into his forearm and pumped green liquid into his body. Almost instantly, an odd calmness drifted through his body and he slumped in the bed.  Dang drugs, he tried to mutter. His mouth wouldn’t allow him as though stuffed with cotton. Side effect from the medicine more than likely and he didn’t like it. He huddled in the bed, trying to stop the shakes. “Your family’s fine. The Bluecoats are splitting up and the rest are still hold up in the old Viscount Industries CEO building you guys found. Once my people came, they began breaking off. It appears that my father and the Coats had an agreement to not get into each other’s business, but Ignace broke that when he launched his coup.”

“What?”

“My dad’s dead, Woody.”

“What how?”

“Ignace killed him.”

“For what?”

“Not important.”

“Hell if it is. What ‘bout Kindle? What’s going on?” More medicine. Appetite whimpered, shrinking into the comforts of his bed. His fatherly instincts roared in the back of his mind, stampeding through every thought. The sedative may have stopped his body from acting, but his mind raced through every potential outcome. He twitched and tapped in his chair. “Ina, what’s happening with our daughter? What’s going on?” He wanted to shout; his voice allowed a painful creak. “What’s going on,” he whined one more time. This was all too much right now. He went to scratch where the needle pricked him and only scratched with air from his missing fingers. It didn’t help his mood much.

“She’s fine or at least I think so.” She stared down at the city. “She went to save your dad from the Major Steven Debenham. That’s the last time Ignace saw her.”

“Ignace? He’s here?”

“Yes.” Ina sighed. “It’s complicated, Woody. Ignace, though very much a horrible person, looked out for me when our father wouldn’t. I did the same for him after what I was forced to do to him in our childhood. He wanted to protect me from people like you.” She shook her head. “Nevermind that, the point is that Ignace caught wind of our father’s agreement with the Coats and their study of the Terracore on the planet. He never told him them where it was, so they naturally assumed the resident family of bandits and smugglers stole it and kept it. My dad never confirmed or denied that fact. In his typical fashion orchestrated events to get what he wanted, another heir to the Flame. Ignace put an end to it.”

“It’s always ‘bout that dang Flame.”

“It was…” Ina whispered. “We weren’t family to him. We were totems, another thing meant to protect this planet…” she sighed. “I didn’t want to leave, Woody. I really didn’t.”

“Why did you?”

“If I didn’t, Cassie would’ve died. The Flame would’ve killed her. I couldn’t explain it to you then. My father didn’t…he watched me closely even across the galaxy.  I never wanted to leave you. I wish I could’ve explained. I–” Ina took a sharp breath. “I’m not blaming it all on him. There’re mistakes that I made all on my own and there are things I don’t expect you to forgive me for. I–”

“Stop.”

“What?”

“Stop. That. We’re gonna work on it.  Don’t worry about it. I reckon I’m just glad you’re here.”

Appetite knew it was the sedatives and medicine making him blow smoke out of his butt and act all stupid. He couldn’t stop it even if he tried. He sat up in his infirmary bed. The healing lights and surgical equipment reeled back and locked back into place beside him. He went to step out of the bed, ripping out his IV but losing his footing at the same time. He crashed to the floor taking an entire metal table of surgical tools with him in a burst of metal. Against the clattering of metal against metal, Ina sighed with an annoyance he knew all too well.  She helped him up, wrapping his tree-trunk of an arm around her small body. “I’m not letting you back down there. You’re gonna have to trust Cassie to handle this now.”

“Is that how’ya slept at night without meet your daughter?” Crap. He hadn’t meant to say that. Apparently, he wasn’t as over it as he thought. She stared at him. In fifteen years, she hadn’t changed much. Her rich brown eyes, her round cheeks, the tumble of her long curly black hair, all the same. What was new was the small lines in underneath her eyes and the loss of the constant smile on her lips.  “I didn’t mean–”

“You did mean that…and I deserved that,” she said with no hesitation, “I know how you value family and I haven’t been there for her or you. No matter what…forces…he kept us apart, that was inexcusable. I could’ve told you. I could’ve contacted her. But we can’t change that.” She helped him into a chair and put her hand in his. Despite everything, he felt warm in the face. “One thing that we can change is how we move forward. I don’t expect you or her to forgive me. I never have. I hope you can. I understand if you can’t. “

Appetite held her small hand in his. She ran her fingers over the uneven stumps of his fingers. He wanted to kiss her, wanted to tell her that it was going to be okay. Was it though? Fifteen years of baggage didn’t disappear upon a reunion. Besides, there were other things happening. His people were fighting for their lives down there. His daughter was face to face with a ‘borg ready to kill her. Whatever was between them–whether pain, love, confusion or hate–would have to wait. He went to stand up. She pushed him down. “Nope. How’d ‘bout this? I’ll go down and check on your family. You stay here.”

Ina turned and walked away from him, plucking her axe and her gun from the small weapon rack on the side. “I can’t tell you everything, Woody. I’ve taken enough time as it is. There’s something I need to stop if I can. Ignace’s revenge on our father isn’t done yet. There’s one thing he wants to do, a nail in his coffin. Your daughter’s about to make a huge mistake.”

Your. That simple word left a sour taste in his mouth. “Our. Our daughter. And what mistake is she ‘bout to make? Make some sense, Ina.”

“The Flame, the Shadow, and the Terracore are–. It’s a closely kept secret and–” Her sentences came to a harsh, unnatural stop every time as though she snapped it with her teeth. She cursed under her breath. “I can’t talk about it right now.” The very familiar shutter of frustration rose in her small body. “There are things I still can’t talk about. I’m gonna fix this, all of this, Woody. You, me, the family I made and never fixed. All of it.”

“Can’ya promise me one thing…” Appetite said, clutching the arms of the chair she plopped him in, “that you’ll come back. That no matter how hard it is, we’ll talk ‘bout it. I can’t promise it’ll all be the same but we gotta work at it. I, at least, deserve that.” Appetite bit his lip lower lip, tasting a bit of blood. It sounded stupid. Everything he said so far sounded stupid. He was that awkward kid asking her out again except this time they had a kid and a history between them. “I don’t know.Just…go. Just go and come back.”

“I never wanted to leave the first time.”

Ina grabbed the last thing from the small rack beside the door, a long dusty red cloak burnt at the edges, and wrapped it around her body. She slammed the button, flinging the hatch open. A blast of cold air rushed through the room.   The pressure popped his ears, giving the open-door sirens full reign to terrorize his ears. She turned and smiled, the cloak fluttering around her body. She mouthed a few words, saluted with two fingers, and fell backward out of the ship. Appetite watched her corkscrew to the surface, waiting until her silhouette grew too small for him to see whatever she did to stop her descent. “Show off,” he muttered, readjusting in his chair.

He missed that about her. He missed a whole lotta thing about her. Riding in her ship brought all those memories back.  Could they get past this? Why did some come back? How? If what she said was true, what changed in the Flames? What was happening in the Viscount Building? Appetite groaned, throwing his head back into the soft head of the chair and glaring at the window.  He rose from his chair, instantly gaining the attention of the AI within the hard glass core. “Hello, Master Woodrow,” he said, starting with its nervous young boy’s voice, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. By request of the Lady, I must not let you overwork yourself. I have been authorized to use force if necessary. I will like to not use force if all possible if that’s okay.”

“Yeah. Yeah.  don’t plan on it.”

“Good…” Kaulu’s voice stuttered for a second as though confused. Right. It had been years since the two had talked.  To an AI core with perfect memory, Appetite was still that reckless monster trying to find himself. Force would’ve been necessary and already used by now.  “Is there–Is there anything that I can help you with?”

“You can. I got a question for you.”

“Query. One moment.” The young boy’s voice changed into a low, mildly condescending man’s voice. “Ready for your question.”

“What’s the connection between the Flame, Shadow, and the Core?”

Kaulu flickered for a second. He flashed red, then orange, and then yellow. The little buzzing sounds he made the gradual change to a low, maddened laughter. Appetite sat awkwardly in his chair, waiting for the AI to finish its tirade. After a while, it blinked back into its normal swirl of colors and took a purposeful sigh. “She figured you’ll use this workaround. Do you want to know?” The man’s voice peaked with amusement. “You might not like the answer.”

 

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