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Intent on eradicating religion in the name of scientific evolution and expanding out from their home planet, far-future humanity faces an unfathomable threat from the void beyond.
Meanwhile, Rohem, a solar-powered human originally used as a weapon against the mysteriously advanced nation of Tabira, embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will reveal the secret behind humanity’s sudden forward leap in technology, as well as the danger of unchecked expansion.
After years on the run, the darkness had finally swallowed him whole.
The Tree Thing – or Rohem, as his captors liked to call him – glanced around in the shadows of the cramped space, struggling to make out any possible escape route. Minutes had turned into hours that turned into days, until he found he no longer knew how much time had passed since his capture.
He could still picture his guardian Joleh turn and run in the other direction as soon as the Kano police closed in on them both. Years of doing Joleh’s bidding against this nation’s ruler – for nothing.
Far deeper than the image of Joleh turning tail, the final memory of his closest companion from the streets cut him to the core. A fellow street urchin, Hazur had screamed, face folding in agony from the wounds of getting struck by the automobile. Clawing at Rohem’s tattered shirt, the skinny boy had died in his arms within moments.
All his life, Joleh had threatened Rohem with a life in the endless dark, promising that would be his fate should he fall prisoner to the Kano. On any other day, Rohem would have heeded Joleh’s warning to never let the police capture him. Following the loss of Hazur, however, freedom hardly seemed to matter.
With each passing moment that the shadows gnawed at him, the heat energy seeped from his flesh…and he hadn’t much strength left to hold onto it….
A high keening permeated the air, wresting Rohem from his lethargy. Someone had opened a door and entered the space somewhere beyond the darkness. Apart from the flickering electronic panel up ahead to his right, he couldn’t yet make out any other features of his prison.
“Hello?” Called a woman’s voice.
Keeping as silent as possible, Rohem peered at the shape emerging through what was likely some sort of barrier between him and freedom.
Despite his weakness, keen eyesight still allowed him to see the older woman approach the vicinity, glancing to the flashing panel on the left. Likely seeing the cage emitted some kind of harmful ray, she seemed to decide against proceeding further.
“Well, well,” the nation leader Eta’s voice sent a frigid spike of fear down his spine, as she approached from the corridor behind the new arrival, “looks like lab security fell short yet again.”
As the sweet light once again blared to life, the newcomer turned to face the Tabir chancellor. “Mak Eta. Please pardon the intrusion. I found myself unable to sleep and decided to explore.”
An eerie smile graced the Mak’s features.
“Naturally.” Replied the Mak. “In fact, I was considering whether to show you myself. First Lasha Nasin, this is Hazard 14 or, as my late opponent Joleh referred to him, Rohem. Fourteenth and final rebel caught during the recent coup. Mind the panel though, the containment field is designed to keep life forms out as well as in.”
“You found him in the trees?” The other woman, Lasha Nasin, asked.
The Mak laughed. Under the harsh light, her haggard expression shone in the bags under her eyes. “He favors anything close to the sky. To the sun. Treetops, buildings…”
Eta stepped up to the cell panel beside Nasin, peering in at Rohem. Rohem dropped his gaze almost immediately, keen to avoid the Mak’s stony gaze as much as possible.
“Look at me, boy.” He steeled his resolve despite that sharp tone. “I said look at me.”
Show no weakness. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
The Mak palmed onto the pad beneath the panel and tapped a graphic on the resulting screen.
In the next moment, the entire area fell black as pitch again.
Assaulted by a primal fear that encased his entire body, Rohem heard his own scream erupt.
“Please! Bring back the light! What do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything, just please let the light come back!”
“Do you promise to be a good boy and tell us whatever we ask?” Eta’s asked from the blackness.
“Yes!” He cried, unable to conceal the break in his voice.
A second later, the lights flooded forth.
“Good boy.” Eta tapped another graphic on the pad screen. “Security rays at full force.”
Rohem’s gaze flitted briefly to Nasin. The tall, silver-haired woman observed him with curious yet gentle eyes.
“Our guest Nasin was quite impressed to learn of your resistance to gamma ray.” Eta stated simply. “Now show good grace and tell me, have you aligned yourself with anyone else besides Joleh?”
“No.” Rohem mumbled, fatigue claiming his limbs. “Joleh was the only one. I have been on the streets. Please let me go. I don’t care about your Capital, and I will not hurt any other Kano officers.”
Eta turned to Nasin, her face beaded with perspiration from the effects of the heat surge he knew his outburst caused. “My opponent Joleh was originally employed with the Kano forces, along with his brother, Samed. Samed eventually discovered Joleh’s treachery in harboring a child—particularly one with…unique abilities. Despite claims to want to use the child’s power for Tabira, Joleh’s level of secrecy was suspect, and he went to prison for six years for having hidden the boy for so long.
“Meanwhile, Rohem spent time in orphanages, wherein he would protect children from being beaten, and keep some warm at night while on the streets during the cold season. As the dark makes him weak, Rohem lived as an ordinary Tabir child and refused to leave those he protected. Until Joleh broke out again and enlisted Rohem for an actual revolt. The boy’s hardiness is what makes him the perfect accomplice. He can set traps in trees and on rooftops where no one else could go and risk the fall. Mostly, he distracts the Kano troops with that static heat trick he just pulled on us.”
“But all under Joleh’s orders?” Nasin inquired.
“He’s generally compliant. Never actually killed any innocent people. A few Kano officers died here and there—usually from a bad fall whilst pursuing him in one of his lofty escapes to a rooftop.”
“The Kano succeeded this time?” Nasin asked.
“Only thanks to the little waif he was harboring. The other orphan was hit by an automobile while trying to run with stolen food. Hazard 14 wouldn’t leave the boy’s side while he lay dying. Once the child died, Rohem allowed himself to be taken.”
Rohem wanted to growl at the way Eta so carelessly talked about Hazur.
Nasin spoke again. “There is no immediate danger, then?”
The Mak hummed. “Many citizens of Tabira smell danger. When we first captured Joleh, he ended up spilling the backstory of how he had first acquired Rohem. He’d found him on the streets. Somehow, Joleh figured out there was more to him. The officer sustained a nasty burn on his arm that left several fingers unusable, yet both he and Rohem claim that it’s not the boy’s doing. Since Joleh’s capture, our agents have utilized particular means to compel him to share more information about the boy, and still the officer remains silent.”
“You would leave all the children on the streets to the Kano…” He chanced.
One look stopped Rohem mid-sentence, though he never dropped Eta’s stare.
“Come now.” Eta glanced back at the boy in the cell. “You prefer it here with us to playing weapon for a man who cares nothing about you.”
Rohem didn’t answer, dropping his gaze to the floor.
“Good then.” Eta turned to Nasin. “First Lasha, are you satisfied?”
“Yes. I want the boy. Rohem.”
Rohem’s head shot up, while the Mak went so still she could have been made of ice. “What would you do with him?”
“You already mentioned how the people view him as a threat. Besides, he clearly wants nothing to do with Tabira. He’s got no one here. Lir, however, can give him the opportunity to eventually enlist in our defense efforts – counterterrorism and otherwise.”
“Only if he so chooses.” Nasin nodded slightly. “For now, he is a child.”
“First Lasha, for the past several years, Tabira has aimed to serve damages for the atrocities committed against the Lirians by the our previous government. Therefore, we have refrained from interfering in how you choose to run Lirian affairs. However, something—someone—like that would provide you quite the unfair advantage…”
“You have my word in this agreement that Lir will not use Rohem nor any other resources against another nation, unless they strike first. If the scales tip at any time, we both know that the Kano officers patrolling Lir will inform you.”
Once again, the two women entered into a staring contest, broken
only when Eta sighed. “Very well, take him off my hands. Consider this a
successful outcome to our first trade meeting.”
Though the moist air outside suggested a recent rainfall, the sky was clear.
The moment Rohem emerged with Nasin out into the bright sunshine,
he swore life itself had returned. As soon as the light hit his face, a tickle
on his bald scalp signaled the re-growth of black curls across his head.
Glancing down at a puddle they passed, he caught a glimpse of his face – gaunt,
almost silver visage regaining its natural, healthy tone the color of tree bark
after a wet season.
As soon as the Kano guards escorted Rohem and Nasin to the rail station, he recognized this part of the city. All around, automobiles honked, as drivers and pedestrians alike halted to observe the flashing billboard images projected on the sides of buildings. Children covered in dirt ran yelling, some in joy, others likely escaping police on the lookout for wayward urchins.
Once on board the rail tube, his eyes consumed the passing scenery—almost hungry—as he gazed out the tube’s large glass window at the passing trees and high hills that rose once they left Tabira behind. The colossal black megalith that loomed over the city moved last from his line of sight, as the train headed toward the open water.
As they boarded the tube, Rohem cast a final fleeting glance at the capital building. Standing watch over the city from atop the only grassy knoll amidst the flat green plains of Tabira, the immense silver structure stood dwarfed only by the megalith towering behind it. When the tube entered onto the Strait Bridge, he glanced around at the vast blue expanse on all sides.
“There is a lot of water.” Nasin explained. “But only for a little while. We are safe in here.”
Eventually, the Strait gave way to brown marshes and, soon enough, to tawny sand dunes.
When a woman came by to offer him bread, he refused and gestured for Nasin to go ahead. Even after who knew how long in the dark, food and water still held no appeal to him.
“For you.” He said.
As the tube approached what he assumed to be Nasin’s nation of Lir and the sky grew violet with sunset, Nasin spoke up. “Don’t be afraid, Rohem. You’ll be safe where we’re going.”
“How long will I be there?” He asked.
“For as long as you like. I don’t want you to be frightened. There are other people there your age, Oria and Avithia. And we have animals there. Dunehorses. A mother who just gave birth to her foal.”
“They always talked about animals in Tabira.” Rohem’s eyes widened. “We only ever saw sick hounds on the streets.”
“We’re calling the baby horse Yeni.” Nasin added.
Rohem allowed a timid smile.
“You will not need to run from the Kano anymore.” Nasin said,
following a pause.
Although his muscles still held significant tension, he reclined his head back on his seat.
Once they arrived at their stop, Rohem peered at the light brown surface before him.
“Sand.” Nasin murmured softly.
Sensing the heat rising from this sand, he bent over and removed
his shoes, proceeding to carry them as he plodded along beside Nasin. Drawing a
deep breath of dry air, he glanced forward to a long wall marked by two
torches, presumably marking an entrance.
Thinking the first stop in Lir would be to rest, Rohem marveled at the size of the building where they stopped.
“Pardon the late hour.” Nasin greeted an older man who welcomed them into a stark-white room.
“No worries at all.” Gether assured her good-naturedly. “It’s been a slow day at the office.”
“Rohem, this is Doctor Gether.” Nasin explained softly in Tabir. “He will examine you now to make sure you are healthy.”
“Hello there, Rohem.” The doctor greeted.
“Will you stay?” Rohem asked Nasin, not wanting to let her out of his sight.
“Of course.” Nasin smiled.
Rohem curiously observed the white room around them, as the doctor set about listening to the his chest with a two-headed snake-like instrument and looking in his eyes.
“Well, all sounds good inside.” Gether announced with obvious interest. “Healthy heart. Did they feed you well in Tabira?”
Tilting his head, Rohem spoke. “I don’t need to eat.”
Frowning, Gether sat on his stool and rolled closer to the exam table. “How is that?”
“I don’t eat food. I just need the sun. Then I don’t feel hungry…or even tired.”
“But you are able to eat?” Gether pressed.
Rohem nodded slowly.
“Indeed. I’d suggest an x-ray, but it’s a bit late for that.” Gether continued. “Wouldn’t want to overwhelm him. Rohem, will you please remove your shirt. I’d like to hear how you breathe.”
Gether posed his request in Tabir, and Rohem grew very still.
“I promise to stay.” Nasin squeezed his shoulder.
Without another word, Rohem removed his patched shirt.
Nasin could almost hear Gether’s breath hiss through his teeth. Before them, Rohem sat kneading the shirt fabric between his fingers and staring at the floor.
He had seen Hazur’s upper body often enough to know that his own smooth, featureless torso wasn’t normal.
“The Capital Center had him?” Gether asked. “Do you know if he’s been genetically engineered?”
“Like Eta’s niece and nephew?” Nasin asked.
“Perhaps.” Gether gingerly placed gloved fingers on Rohem’s upper back, the boy’s eyes remaining on his own lap. “Though the Flightless children inherited that trait. I have yet to see an instance of actual genetic engineering.”
A pause ensued, as Rohem took in the various brown cabinets and white walls of the small room.
“Breathing sounds entirely normal.” The doctor remarked. “And we are certain he isn’t Lasha?”
“He hasn’t exhibited a gender change as far as I’ve been informed, and doesn’t need food or water. He seems to…produce heat when he feels threatened or stressed.” Nasin explained.
“If he truly doesn’t require nutrients, then any digestive organs would be vestigial. Fascinating. He must draw all sustenance from another source.” Gether made his way over to the cabinets by where Nasin stood.
“Sunlight, perhaps.” Nasin offered.
The doctor hummed in reply, and Rohem shifted ever so slightly on the exam table.
“Small pinch.” Gether warned in Tabir, pressing a tiny syringe to Rohem’s shoulder.
He made sure not to flinch, despite the subtle sting. After withdrawing the small tube, Gether went still.
“What is it?” Nasin didn’t move from Rohem’s side.
“No blood.” The doctor breathed out. “He doesn’t bleed. I’d really like to see an x-ray right about now. But all in good time. As for the heat…” He moved to another cabinet, this time by the door.
“One of the better parts of trade with Tabira.” Gether pulled a grey device from one of the cabinet drawers. “Small medical supplies. This is a radiometer, it will detect radiation for some of the larger imaging equipment we hope to manufacture ourselves.”
Relief filled Rohem at the realization that this object didn’t seem to need to make contact with his skin.
“I’m getting only trace readings,” Gether mused. “Extremely minimal, not harmful. I suppose if he’s to stay here, you just have to make sure he remains as calm as possible. Other than that, he is in completely normal condition for a boy of his age. Speaking of which, do we know for certain how old he is? He looks about seven.”
“Seven is what I planned to go with.” Nasin affirmed.
“Nice to meet you, Rohem.” Dr. Gether murmured, touching the boy’s right shoulder. “Welcome to Lir.”
As they reached the smaller building Rohem supposed was Nasin’s home, the fear of the night outside crept forth once more.
“This is your room.” Nasin showed Rohem to a small room with a cloth of colorful design on the floor beside the bed. “You should sleep now. Please let me know if you need anything. I stay in the room down the hall to the right of the window.”
“I don’t need to sleep.” Rohem insisted.
Nasin nodded. “You’re afraid of the dark?”
Rohem made a sound in the back of his throat. “Maybe. But I don’t need to sleep.”
Nasin frowned. “They didn’t let you sleep at the Capital Center?”
“No, I just never sleep. Wherever I am.”
“I see.” Nasin replied, tone laced with fatigue. “Well, it’s been a trying day for all. Can you perhaps rest?”
Rohem pondered this for a moment. “Yes.”
With a smile, Nasin turned to leave.
“Wait…First Nasin?” He spoke up again, dreading the thought of her leaving him to the shadows of the room.
She glanced back with another smile. “Nasin will do. Yes, child?”
“I am…I am afraid of the dark.”
“It’s not all dark though,” Nasin cooed gently, settling her hand on Rohem’s shoulder. “Look out that window.”
She pointed to the window, at the gently glowing megalith.
“It’s pretty.” Rohem breathed. “But it’s not the sun.”
Nasin sighed. “I will stay with you tonight.”
“Thank you.” Rohem settled on the floor, “I’ll rest. Please, sleep on the bed. I don’t need the bed. I like this…this here.”
“The carpet,” chuckled Nasin. “Very well. Thank you. Good rest,
He didn’t want to. He truly didn’t, but as always happened even on days with plenty of sun, the dark of night drew out the energy. As Joleh had always taught him, giving heat promised he would see another day.
Moments after he took her hand, the sky outside flashed with lightning from a dry thunderstorm, followed closely by a deep rumble.
“What…what are you doing?” Nasin’s voice asked, perplexed, as he let the heat energy drain from his fingers into her arm.
“Is it too strong?” Rohem asked with a curious tilt of his head, worried she might decide to leave after all. “I wanted to make you feel good. The Mak called it energy flow. Joleh’s friends always liked it this way, during sleep, but I can try…”
“Rohem…” Nasin said gently as she withdrew her hand from his fingers. “You don’t have to do that here.”
“But to say thank you?” Rohem obeyed her wishes and dropped her hand, desperate not to anger her. “Didn’t the Mak tell you? If I don’t do this after dark, I will end.”
“Mak Eta told you this?” she asked carefully.
Rohem shook his head. “Joleh knew. He told everyone. It’s always been like this.”
“Do you hurt during the night?”
“…No.” Replied Rohem thoughtfully. “I just feel…more tired.”
“The first night we met,” Nasin said slowly. “How long had they kept you down there in the cell?”
Rohem pursed his lips. “I don’t know. Time seems the same below ground.”
“How many guards came in and out this past time?” Nasin asked.
“About five, maybe six.” Rohem answered.
“Rohem,” Nasin began again, “I am Lasha. Lasha are different, much like you. We are strong, and do not require such thanks. All Lirians use words only for thanks. Besides, the sun is always shining on Lir—the desert sand keeps in the heat.”
“The tower looks taller here.” Remarked Rohem, fiddling with the carpet fringe. “We are closer to it than in Tabira.”
“And it watches over you.” Nasin smiled in the pale light. “Though we do not go near it, same as in Tabira. Best to keep your distance. If you ever feel unsafe, you can always come to me—beginning tonight.”
“I am frightened now.” Rohem murmured, sitting up on his knees to face Nasin.
“I’ll tell you what.” Nasin replied. “I will hold your hand for the remainder of the dark hours. Only holding. In the morning, I promise, you will face a bright new day.”
After a lengthy pause, Rohem ran a hand through his hair and curled up on the carpet by Nasin’s bedside. He reached up to take her hand.
“Rest now, Rohem-tha.” She soothed as she softly grasped his fingers. “That is the only thanks necessary.”
The events of that night were never mentioned again.
To see what happens next, check out Apex Five on Amazon!