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Kafelnikov
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"The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion." ~Albert Camus
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[Chapter 20]

Hal sucked air deep into his lungs, fighting off the clamor that seemed to be erupting from all around him. Though the walls, the floor, and the ceiling he could feel the pressure of the lives suddenly thrown into movement in reaction to the violence. No matter how hard he wished it, the bees' nest couldn't be unkicked.

The giant void ripped into the world by Vanir's singularity prevented Hal from continuing down the hallway, which was probably a good thing. The evil rec room was down that way. He could already begin to sense and see the IR heat shimmers of multiple people moving towards them from that direction. Miri ran to pick up Vanir's springer, but found the body of the weapon to be badly damaged from the deflected bullet. It wasn't useful as a gun anymore.

“No time for that Miri, let's go!” Hal grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her along with him as he scrambled back towards the stairwell leading upwards, to freedom. The sound of his own amplified and  adrenaline accelerated heartbeat made it difficult to hear her response.  

“Easy Hal! I'm right there with you.” While his power washed away the pain from his old wounds, Hal still couldn't move as fast or as quick as Miri, who was healthy and nimble on her own. “You're the one with crazy supervision. Lead the way!”

The heat from the bees was strongest down here. Hal needed to get up to the ground floor, and from there, out of the cathedral for good. A short sprint down the hallway led to the base of the spiral staircase. Its steps seemed to be hewn from alternating slabs of white marble and black granite, each one of them deeply cold to the touch of his feet. It was no matter, though. He consumed them all in his haste, skipping over one color as his long stride passed by every other step. The sounds of frantic pursuit chased them both towards the top. They had a head start, but that wouldn't last long if they hesitated.

Hal made it only a handful of steps past the top of the staircase and down the hall before he stopped all of a sudden, causing Miri to crash into him awkwardly. “Ow! Hey-” She started to protest his unexpected halt, but he silenced her without a word, dropping low to take careful aim with his springer. There was someone about to round the far corner up ahead. Even though Miri couldn't see it, he could.

The heat blur of a woman rounded the corner, but Hal was ready for her. He settled her shape in between the thin vee-notch sights of his pistol, and pulled the trigger. The bullet, launched forward by a coiled, high-power spring, spiraled through the air, shedding vortices that shimmered brilliantly in its wake. It traversed the distance of the hallway in a flash, intersecting his target as she came into full view.

There was a short surprised scream of pain, and the woman lost her footing, half-tumbling, half-crashing against the opposite wall. Hal rose from his crouch and thumbed the breech release, exhaling a long-held breath of billowing vapor. The spent casings and springs ejected out of the breech of his again-spent pistol. He looked down, reaching back into his pocket for fresh bullets.

“Um... Hal!?” Miri's worried voice caused him to look up. The woman was back on her feet, still alive. Blood dripped down her arm from where the bullet wounded her, but failed to put her out of commission. Her expression was one of pained fury, and with her good hand she drew a vicious looking blade. A halo materialized over her head, and she started to charge at them. Her heat signature shifted and changed, growing much fainter as it morphed away from the spectrum Hal was perceiving.

“Hal!” Miri's voice jumped from worried to alarmed. “She's invisible!”

He reached one arm back, handing the gun and the loose bullets to Miri. He barked a single word: “Load.”

“Wha-?” She accepted the weapon with surprise, nearly dropping the loose bullets onto the ground.

“Load the gun!” There was no more time to argue. Hal took a step forward, placing himself in the center of the hall between Miri and their attacker. His eyes flashed with all colors as he sequenced through every wavelength he could see, but at best all he could detect was a dim, indistinct cloud of color that rushed towards them at accelerated speed.    

Hal could sense Miri's fearful but focused determination as she fumbled with the ammunition, forcing her untrained fingers to complete the delicate task. He could also sense the murderous intent of their assailant, and that intent grew into an ever increasing pressure as the sound of static began to fill his mind. “Come on.” Hal muttered , balancing his weight between both legs, opening his stance. “COME ON!”

The faint shape was almost in reach. It jumped sideways, off the wall, and then up into the air. Its trajectory, in a few more tenths of a second, would fall directly onto Hal's chest. From behind, the sound of a breech clicking shut prompted delayed movement into action.

Hal leapt forward with all his might, up towards the falling field of color. As his feet left the ground, he punched out his right hand, sharp talons forwards towards the center of the pressure that shoved against his heart. He felt the momentary flicker of surprise, like a candle flame wavering in the wind before it was snuffed out. Talons slid effortlessly into flesh, and his forward movement was only stopped as fingers reached bone, wrapping around her spine. His momentum pivoted forward, and the jump ended by slamming her head down into the marble floor, fingers speared through and grip wrapped around her throat. In an instant, her form returned to normal, becoming visible. Miri gasped in surprise as she saw the results, and Hal could do nothing to stop the sudden flood of blood from spraying onto his face and wetting his hand with warm and violent flow.

“Oh, spirits!” Miri sobbed, holding the pistol loosely in one hand as her knees buckled, but failed to fully collapse. There was no hiding the raw results of the battle for survival in which there could be only one victor. Hal let loose a primal cry of triumph and pulled his talons free, releasing her neck to instead close around the handle of the curved machete-like weapon.

More alarmed shouts echoed upwards from the stairwell behind them. The night would not wait patiently for them to proceed. “Come on Miri! We need to keep moving.” Despite her shock, she was able to get her legs to obey, and the two of them stepped past the body of the would-be Celestial Assassin and rushed onwards, towards the front door.

It was a short sprint down the corridor and around the corner, to reach one of the doors that led forward into the main chamber of the cathedral. Hal paused at the door, taking a few precious seconds to scan the room beyond with his sharpened perception. In the chaos, the Celestials hadn't much time to secure the area, but two humanoid shapes roamed the space beyond, amidst the pews, each carrying a military grade springer rifle. The business end of those weapons scanned across where they were set to emerge.

“Ok Miri.” Hal breathed deep, sucking in every molecule of oxygen his lungs could hold. “We have maybe 60 seconds before we're caught. Two men in the other room. Both have rifles. I'm going left, you go right. Split their fire, make it easier to get close. Use the columns for cover and only shoot if you have a good shot. You have two bullets.”

Miri's eyes were wide, and her fingers gripped the handle of the springer as tight as she could. It was clear that the moment was threatening to completely overwhelm her. “Hal... I don't...” Hesitation and fear caused her words to falter.

“Miri.” Hal looked straight into her eyes, placing both hands on her shoulders. “Do you trust me?”

Her confusion wavered, and she ever so slightly nodded her head. “Yes...”

“Do you want to live?”

She nodded again. Her voice found its foundation, this time emerging more clear. “Yes.”

“We can make it through this, but only if we work together. I'm not going to let you die, and you're not going to let me die. Right?”

“Right.”

Hal allowed himself the luxury of two seconds to give Miri a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek. There were so many other things he wished he could say, but now was not the time. Despite his hopes, somehow it seemed it as if time was never on their side at all. The precious seconds continued to pass unabated, and neither one of them could stay the clock any longer. “Okay.” Hal swallowed, trying to wet a throat that was suddenly far too dry. His fingers wrapped around the handle of the door, gripping the metal with decisive finality. “I go left. You go right.”

Miri nodded, raising her pistol to rest at the ready, pointed upwards alongside her head. “Right.”

“Three, two, one.... GO!”

Hal pushed the door open and surged through, ducking low and diving to the left. He rolled forward towards the partial cover of the wooden pews as springer bullets whizzed through the air where his center of mass should have been. Miri didn't hesitate either, darting into the main chamber and angling to the right to take cover behind a sturdy pillar of white marble.

The two Celestials shouted out in alarm, and their large-bore rifles splintered wood and chipped stone with relentless ferocity as each one of them cycled round after round downrange. Miri screamed as she cowered behind cover. Hal screamed as he scrambled low behind the pews. The gunmen screamed as they traced differing targets, struggling to hold their weapons on track behind the massive recoil. The intensity of the moment overtook them all, like a storm overtakes a coastal village. Everyone knows what's coming, but not one can do a thing to stop it.

Fragments of wood splintered against Hal's face as he traversed sideways, narrowly avoiding a direct hit. Soon he reached the opposite row of marble columns, and was able to turn, heading deeper into the room, closer to his attackers. The Celestial targeting Hal did not relent, holding Hal in his sights as best he could. Every round springing forth from the barrel of his rifle hit hard, pulverizing stone into a fine white cloud as Hal weaved forward between the columns. The tricky landscape offered only fleeting windows of a clear shot. Miri cried out, letting loose a primal bark of emotion as she pressed her body tight against the first column, completely pinned down behind the flurry of oncoming fire.    

Hal stopped at the column closest to his gunman, hiding behind cover as the bullets meant for him found obstacles instead. He could sense the fear in his attacker, and that fear quickly turned to panic as the magazine of his rifle ran empty. One finger reached up to depress the magazine release, and that faint click triggered Hal's all-or-nothing charge. The gunman realized his dire situation as Hal turned the corner, just as the empty clip hit the ground with an echoing *clank*.

The second enemy seemed to realize the new trouble, however, and turned towards Hal. The barrel of his weapon angled towards Hal mid-charge, and started to stitch a trail of bullets across his axis. The first bullet hit the back of a pew, sending forth a spray of wooden splinters. The second bullet whizzed inches from Hal's body with a sharp, high-pitched whine. The third bullet... never came.

Miri took that moment to peel out from cover and fire a shot at bad guy #2. The bullet narrowly missed behind her novice aim, clipping the very top edge of a wooden bench to shower the man with stinging fragments of debris. It wasn't much, but it was just enough to buy Hal the time he needed.

Bad guy #1 was just slapping home a fresh magazine into the side of the rifle when Hal reached him. With a ferocious scream, Hal swung his machete diagonally in a chopping motion. The blade carved into the gunman with disturbing ease, and it passed straight through his collarbone to rend the center of his torso in a single terrible strike. The blade found more bone and finally caught, stopping the blade and awkwardly pinning Hal's weapon into the dying enemy, who lost his balance and fell forward.

The second gunman wasn't dissuaded for long. Rather than return fire at Miri, he continued to fire at Hal who was much closer. The next few bullets slammed into his dying comrade, whose body shielded Hal's from the attack, if only for that one moment. The metal slide of the springer rifle kicked forward a bit too fast between shots, and it jammed onto a spring that had yet to clear the firing mechanism.

After a brief struggle, Hal was able to free his blade, and he tossed the body of his now-dead enemy to the side before charging the remaining Celestial across the narrow aisle between pews. This one was well trained, however, and he cleared the stovepipe jam with a swift and forceful chop of one hand, allowing the bolt to finish cycling forward and load a new round. The barrel of the weapon quickly trained back towards Hal.

In desperation, Hal threw his machete at the gunner to disrupt his aim. His throw hit home, but the blade hit hilt first. The weapon, instead of delivering a swift and dramatic end to the engagement, merely clattered off to the side after rudely inconveniencing the enemy, but otherwise leaving him unharmed.

That momentary disruption was enough, however, as it afforded Hal the precious additional second to get into melee range. With one hand he batted away the rifle barrel that attempted to home in on his chest.  In that same step, Hal kicked out with his good leg, plunging his wickedly curved foretalon into the abdomen of his target before ripping sharply downward. The man screamed in pain, but was quick to fall. Within seconds, he had been reduced to a writhing bleeding mass on the floor of the cathedral.

Hal gasped, dragging in a ragged breath. The carnage of the brief but bloody battle was impossible to ignore, and already he felt his stomach begin to clench and revolt against him. He closed his eyes and tried to swallow down the bile that simmered underneath the surface. Miri hesitated for a moment before realizing that they were clear and quickly jogged forward to join Hal.  She tried her best to avoid looking down at the blood that slicked the floor and stained Hal's clothes. “Are you ok?”

Hal nodded absently, using his forearm to wipe blood away from his eyes. Whether it was his own or not, he wasn't sure, but the strong metallic taste of iron lingered in his mouth. “I'm alive. You?” His heartbeat was almost deafening inside his own skull.

“...I'm ok.” Miri was shaken by the entire ordeal, but she nodded with certainty.  

“Ok. Let's get out of here.” Hal started to run towards the final door: the exit to the streets beyond, but he was halted suddenly by an electric shock that gripped his whole body and sent him tumbling to the ground. Miri screamed and dove off to the side, out of his sight.

“Awwwww, YEAH! Get some, BITCH! Get some!” The booming voice of Dubs erupted from behind them, and a fresh arc of brutal electricity leapt forward to wrack Hal with spasms of pain. He lost the grip on his machete and convulsed helplessly on the cold stone floor of the cathedral. Every muscle in his being clenched involuntarily as he flailed in the aisle, powerless beneath the assault. Hal could barely hear anything, save the sounds of his own screaming.

“That's what you get!” Dubs' voice continued. “That's what you fucking ge-”

All of a sudden the electricity stopped, and the room fell oddly silent. Hal waited a few seconds to gather himself and make sure he was still alive before he managed to angle his head. As his eyes focused, he saw Miri, standing with both arms outstretched, still holding her pistol in firing position. Delicate arcs of smoke wafted from the friction heat of the barrel as tears streamed freely down her cheeks. Dubs was shot dead with a bullet placed clean through his skull. She sobbed slightly as she released a breath long held.

Miri wiped away her tears and ran to Hal's side, reaching down to help him stand. “Get up! Come on, get up!” Though they both struggled with the action, Hal eventually found his feet beneath him, and was able to finally limp towards the door. Miri kicked the entrance open with a decisive strike, and the two of them fled into the dark and empty city streets.

At this time of night, there was almost no one in sight. The grand and open streets of Theophanies were normally so awe inspiring during the day, but now, under the scattered halos of intermittent street lights, darkness seemed ready to engulf the whole city with shadowy tendrils. There was nowhere for them to run except deeper into the abyss.

The two of them fled the scene at a dead sprint, Miri leading the way ahead of Hal, who labored hard to keep up. They darted down alleyways and crossed boulevards, seemingly at random, and soon Hal lost track of where they were. Despite that, the sounds of pursuit never seemed to lag very far behind them. While neither of them could see the pursuers, Hal could feel their pressure urging him onward even as his body cried out for rest.

Miri dragged Hal around another turn and suddenly they were greeted with a view of the Eridan River, which flowed through the western core of the city. Ahead, a transport barge was steaming hard on its way upstream, pulling away from the riverside dock where it had just picked up cargo.  The open deck was littered with crates, ropes and tarps.

“Hal!” Miri pointed to the barge without breaking stride. “The boat!”

Hal felt his spirits both buoyed and sunk by the form of their salvation.  “Miri, I need to tell you something!” It looked like at least 15 feet of water between the shore and the ship.  “It's really important!”

“Make it quick!” She called back breathlessly, not slowing at all.

“I don't know how to swim!”

Hal heard a winded laugh from up ahead. “Then you better be good at jumping!” Miri put words into action, and scrambled up the stairs to the wooden dock with surprising grace. Three more light strides and she reached the end of the platform. Without hesitation she hurled herself out into empty air, uncoiling her body to get every last erg of energy into her forward movement. She landed onto the deck of the barge with a controlled shoulder roll, and finished up on her feet, no worse for wear.

Just do that, Hal.... no problem.... Hal muttered to himself under labored breaths. He clambered his clumsier and heavier body up to the dock, and ran as hard as he could towards the edge. Miri held her arms out at the narrow wall of the deck, ready to help catch him. His tail looked back behind him, towards the pursuers that had yet to round the final bend.

“Don't look back, Hal! Just jump!”

“Grrrraaaah!!” He felt his left foot curl around the final plank of wood, and he shoved forward with all of his might, letting out a feral cry. Hal's body floated out over the dark water, his arms stretched out in front of him, his feet trailing back far behind. Hal was strong, but he wasn't nearly as light as Miri. Only now that he had committed to the leap did Hal realize that he didn't have enough altitude to clear the wall of the deck of the barge.

There was barely enough time to brace himself before his body crashed into the side of the boat. He barely managed to get his arms above the ledge before the rest of his body hit, and he rocked his head against the metal hull, sending stunning shots of electricity into his skull. Dazed, he slipped downwards, barely managing to close one claw around the lip of the wall. His fingers quickly gave way, but the fast and firm hands of Miri quickly reached down to grab at his jacket.

“I got you. Come on!” She pulled with all her strength, and it was just enough boost to help Hal get his other arm up to pull himself over onto the cold and damp wooden deck. They didn't waste any time, retreating into the maze of crates and finally falling into an exhausted heap under a foul weather tarp stretched over some equipment. Soon enough, the dock was well behind them, as were the sounds of their pursuers. They were safe... for now.  

Hal deactivated his power and the world contracted back in around him with a sickening quickness. The shock was so severe, he couldn't do anything except gasp for air for the next several minutes. Miri watched him with worry, resting one hand gently on his shoulder. “Are you going to make it?”

Hal nodded, swallowing loudly between breaths. “I'm alive.”

“We lost them. But I don't think it's over yet.” Miri looked deeply concerned. “Marcus is still going to try to destroy the Sabbaton Tower tomorrow. We need to let the police know.”

Hal shook his head and coughed, wiping at his mouth. “That won't work. Marcus has the local authorities in his pocket. At best, the warning will be dismissed or delayed until it's too late. At worst, they'll arrest us.” His tail looked back towards the roiling wake that passed through the water behind them. “We can't just go to the police.”

“Well, we have to do something, Hal! Thousands of innocent lives are at stake!”

“I know, Miri.” He closed his eyes for a few heartbeats, taking a precious moment to think about the situation. The sound of the lapping water helped calm his nerves. “This barge is heading north, which means it's probably going to stop in Calypsa soon. We're moving at a good clip. I have an old friend there. He knows people. Hopefully we can use that to bypass the cronies and get the Troopers alerted.”

Miri's voice softened a bit, and she leaned closer to Hal, smoothing the frayed and blood spattered feathers on top of his head. “What about us, then?”

Hal opened one eye, looking her over, and then closing it again, leaning back with an exhausted sigh. “I don't have much fight left in me tonight, Miri. I'm sure Jonny will let us crash at his place until everything blows over. It might not be your cup of tea, but at least we'll be safe there.”

Her voice grew suspicious. “What do you mean by that, exactly?”

“Heh.” Hal let out a weak chuckle. “You'll understand when we get there.”

[End Chapter 20]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 20
EDIT: After starting work on the next chapter, I decided it would be a better seque for the chapters to add the end of the escape to this chapter before proceeding into 21. There's about 1,000 words of new content at the end of this chapter. I hope you enjoy. 
~~~
Man, writing action is hard! I finally got through this, which is probably the first time I've written a chapter entirely devoted to action, as opposed to characters. It was a new challenge for me, but I'm happy to get through it finally. This next chapter is going to be one of my favorites I think, and I can't wait to share it with everyone. 

As always, if you read my work, please let me know what you think, good or bad. All feedback is helpful to me. I'm immensely thankful for all of the support people have given me. 

****

Thanks so much for reading! 
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The Path by Kafelnikov
The Path
We all walk different paths in our lives. This one was mine for one memorable afternoon on the far side of the world. For as long as I live, I will remember the sound it made under my boots as I marched forward. 

Picture taken at "The Craters of the Moon" in Taupo, New Zealand. Canon ELPH 150 IS. 
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[Chapter 19]

“What happened back there was murder, plain and simple! How the hell do you justify killing someone in cold blood like that!?” After a sorrowful and silent ride back, Hal now found himself in a heated argument with his brother in the cozy top-floor office of the cathedral. Despite the comfortable setting, it felt like the argument could boil over at any moment. Vanir, Dubs and Miri all played spectator to the unfolding fight.

Marcus sighed, uncorking a bottle of fermentae and taking a sip before responding to Hal. “Hal, you're angry. I get it. I really do. But what was I supposed to do? Capture him? Risk more people discovering us? Start a whole big collection of captives to keep you and Miri company? I can't afford that, Hal. One slip up when we're this close, and everything falls apart.”

“God damn it, Marcus! He was my friend!” Hal couldn't restrain his outrage. “You could at least pretend to show remorse for all you've done!”

Marcus threw his hands up in exasperation. “Words can't change anything Hal! What's done is done. If an apology will make you feel better, fine, I'm sorry. I'm sorry it had to come to that. I really am. But I don't have the luxury of mercy under these circumstances!” Marcus set his drink down and leaned forward, planting both hands on the top of his desk. “Do you have any idea how hard I've had to work to keep the meteor's power hidden from the government!? To establish my power base? To finally reach a point where we're ready to strike? Years of deliberate and methodical effort: collecting data, buying influence over important officers and politicians, building a network of agents in key positions.” He shook his head. “I can't risk any rogue elements disrupting this delicate web, now more than ever!”

Hal stomped his cane on the floor “That doesn't make it right, Marcus!”

“Maybe not, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong either. Things just aren't that simple, and you know it.”

Miri spoke up from Hal's side, joining in. “How many more people need to die before it is wrong, then? How many more people need to die before you're done killing in the name of this cause?”

“If we're smart about it, hopefully not too many.” Marcus stepped around the desk, walking closer to the two of them. “If we want to save lives, in the end, then we need to strike hard and end the revolution on the very same day it begins. Quick and clean.” Marcus punched one fist into his other open palm. “Just think about it Hal. The tower isn't just a symbol of our oppressors, it's the nerve center of all of their operations! If we destroy it all in one momentous strike, they won't be able to resist us, and the people will finally learn to trust in the power of their own hearts rather than the power of the troopers and the Viscount!”

“Hmph.” Hal grunted and shook his head, but that didn't seem to do anything but embolden Marcus and his little lecture.

“Just look at you. Look at us, Hal.” Marcus placed a hand over his heart. “We are MIGHTY. We have within us a beautiful and tremendous power. It wasn't given to us by the goddess so we could just sit back and merely exist as slaves. It was given so we could free ourselves. So we can remove our shackles and finally learn how to live again!” Marcus laughed a little. “Why do you think they make it illegal for anyone to use their power? It's because they KNOW that they cannot keep us contained once we've tasted the strength of our own souls!”

Passion dripped from each one of Marcus' words, feeding the fire that crackled happily in the fireplace. Dubs seemed to be nodding agreeably to the little speech. Vanir stood quietly in the corner, her attention hyper focused on Hal and Miri.  

“Marcus...” Hal shook his head, feeling his eyes water a little at the edges. “Do you really think you're a savior? Heroes don't murder innocent old men because they're inconvenient.” Hal settled his weight on his cane, letting it react as much exhaustion as he could bear. “Dr. Kincaid taught me how to study the stars. He introduced me to Miri. He gave me patience, helped me start my life over again... and now he's dead. Dead all because of you and your bloody aspirations of revolution.” Hal took a deep breath, the next words emerging with the weight of finality. “I don't think I can ever forgive you.”

“I don't need your forgiveness, Hal.” Marcus hefted the freshly-retrieved meteor fragment, staring at its  center. “If you truly valued his life, then we should work together to make his sacrifice worth the cost.”

“No.” Hal shook his head. “I'm done with this. All of it.” Marcus appeared to be disappointed by Hal's stubborn refusal, but Hal didn't let that dissuade him. “We had a deal. You've got another meteor. Now let us leave. We don't belong in this nightmare anymore.”

Marcus sighed, staring into the fireplace while he idly turned the meteor over in his hands. “Alright.” He hefted the black stone and tossed it between his hands. “Give me 24 hours, and then you're free to go. You won't ever have to talk to me again, if you so choose. We'll all be free to live the lives we want by this time tomorrow.”

“24 hours!?” Miri wasn't happy. “We deserve to go free right now!”

Marcus' lips twisted downward into a bitter scowl. “We all deserve it. But you can't leave until we've struck the first blow. No rogue elements.”

“Come on, Marcus!”

“Don't even start, Hal! Don't you even start that 'come on Marcus' bullshit with me.” Yellow eyes narrowed, cutting through the protest. “I just need enough time to organize my forces, distribute the meteor shards, and launch the operation. You can afford to wait just one day longer.”

Marcus tossed the meteor to Dubs, who caught it in his massive paws with a cry of surprise. “Make sure it stays safe. We begin the ceremony of distribution as soon as possible. Everyone earns their shard tonight.”

“Sure thing Arch.” Dubs eagerly marched his way out of the room, cradling the meteor like a fragile child as he disappeared down the hall.

Marcus nodded to Vanir, who drew her pistol and held it pointed in Hal and Miri's direction. “I'm sorry to have to do this to you, brother, but it will all pay off with just a little more patience. You need to trust me on this.” Marcus placed his hand on Hal's shoulder, leaning in close. “You look like you could use some rest. Just relax. Spend some quality time with your girlfriend. Get some sleep. When you're ready to open your eyes again, you'll be able to look out onto a better world. I know we've been walking different paths, but we both want the same things. We always have.”

Hal wasn't happy. Marcus' words did nothing to assuage him. In fact, a bubbling pool of frustration and anger continued to simmer beneath his surface, one notch warmer than before. He was done letting people dictate terms to him. He wanted to return fire, offer a witty one liner about Marcus' definition of quality time if Vanir always has to use a gun, but said nothing. Vanir had a pistol trained on him, and she looked to be in no joking mood.

“Get moving, you two. It's time to call it a night.” Vanir's commanding contralto urged them forward with the wave of the barrel.

“This will never end the way you want...” Miri muttered under her breath as she started walking, grabbing Hal's free arm and helping lead him onward.

The three of them walked out of the office and down the hall in silence, leaving Marcus alone to plot the coming hours. Hal and Miri shuffled along in front of Vanir's steady aim, saying nothing to each other, nor to Vanir. They descended the spiral staircase and proceeded down another dimly lit hall. The stained glass windows watched them march on with twisted and shadowy shapes. No light shone through from outside to give life to the momentous events they depicted.

Hal and Miri shared a glance as they started to approach their room. Her brilliantly beautiful eyes shone with a determined fire he never saw before. She gave him a subtle nod. They both knew what they had to do.

“Hold up.”

Vanir's footsteps stopped and they all paused just in front of the bedroom door that served as their cell. Hal turned, and found that she was aiming her springer straight at his head. “I think this is far enough.”

“Far enough for what?” Miri asked, her voice mockingly indignant.

Vanir shook her head. “I'm not an idiot. And neither are you.” Her expression was dead serious and pinpoint focused on her target. “You're going to betray Marcus.”

“I just want to get some sleep. I'm not in any shape to fight.” Hal lied. Vanir was buying none of it.

“Please.” Vanir sighted the pistol in on Hal, shifted it to Miri, and focused it again on Hal. “You expect me to believe that you're going to play nice? After everything that's happened? Watching your mentor murdered like that?” She took a deep breath and brought the hammer to full-cock. “You're Marcus' twin brother, which means you're far too brave, far too stubborn, and wholly incapable of letting an injustice  turn into water under the bridge. I'm afraid that your story ends here.”

Hal held his hands up slightly in a gesture of half-surrender. “So... what? You're just going to shoot me? Here, in this hallway? Kill the last family member he has left?” Hal narrowed his eyes. “Marcus and I may not agree, but I promise you.... he will never forgive you for this.”

“Maybe not.” Vanir agreed with a sober nod. “But at least he'll still be alive. At least we will still have a chance to build something new. I can't let you take the future from us.”

Her aim settled over Hal's face. “I'm sorry.”

“NO!!!” Miri leapt into action, diving at Vanir in a desperate attempt to stop her. This took Vanir by surprise, clearly thinking that Hal was the one who would move first. Her aim shifted in that twitching half-second as she pulled the trigger, and the bullet whizzed by the edge of Hal's skull, missing by mere hairs.

Miri tried to get her hands on the gun, but Vanir turned her body and batted Miri to the side with a sharp, skillful strike. Hal didn't hesitate and dropped his cane and letting his power come alight. He reached into his jacket and drew his own pistol, training it on Vanir just as she was training her's upon him. Time seemed to move so slow in that moment, once again. History could only be destined to repeat itself.

Hal fired first, his aim missing her chest, but instead clipping her revolver with a metallic *pang*. It was knocked free from her grasp and spun across the floor, ending out of reach down the hall. They both seemed to take a sharp inhale of breath as time sped back up, snapping them into an accelerated reality. Hal cocked the hammer for his second shot. Vanir dove to the side. Guided by adrenaline, the bullet missed its mark, ricocheting off the wall.

“Shit!” Hal thumbed the breech release, and the barrel of his pistol angled down sharply as the back end hinged up to allow reloading of two new rounds. The spent casings and uncoiled springs shot out the back of the gun, nearly hitting Hal in the eye before falling onto the floor with a hollow metal echo. He reached into his pocket, desperately groping for fresh ammunition with trembling fingers. Every one of them was drunk on the intoxicating promise of survival.

Vanir rose to one knee and held her palms together. A shimmering blue halo erupted to light over her head. As she separated her palms, a crackling, humming, throbbing sphere of black-purple energy grew into the space, filling it with tremendous and terrible singularity of doubtless destruction.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit...” That looked bad. Hal muttered his way through the panic, struggling to load new bullets into the breech. His unsteady hand failed him, and a small handful of bullets fell from his grasp and clattered to the floor below.

“Look out!” Miri propped herself up and kicked at Vanir just as the orb of energy was launched forward. Hal dove to the ground, hitting the deck as fast as he ever had before. Gravity was barely strong enough to drag him down and out of the way of the projectile.

The orb sailed down the hall, crashing into a corner where the wall met the ceiling. It expanded in an instant, swelling into a massive black hole ten times the original size. It ripped at the universe itself, tearing fragments of matter in a final and irresistible implosion.

Wind rushed though the hall, sucked past them into the event horizon. Hal dug his talons into the floor, resisting the pull with every ounce of strength and will. The only sound he could hear was the high-frequency scream of molecules ripped asunder. All light seemed to bend, be absorbed, and rush past his shoulder into the roiling angry sphere.

Seconds later, after an eternity had passed, the sphere collapsed in on itself, leaving behind nothing but the perfectly round imprint of nothingness where clean walls, floor, and ceiling once stood.  The air dropped in temperature a couple of degrees.

Miri wrestled with Vanir, disrupting her from summoning forth a new singularity, and buying Hal a precious few seconds to come to his feet. As much as it helped Hal, it was a losing proposition for Miri, and quickly Vanir emerged for the better, knocking the wind out of Miri with a sharp knee and knocking her down to hit her head on the side of the wall.

Vanir was fast in neutralizing Miri, but not quite fast enough to be ready for Hal. His tail lurched forward and nipped at her with its fangs, creating the one opening that he needed to unleash a devastating combination of raw fury. The first strike caught her in the gut, liberating the air from her lungs and jack-knifing her buckling body. The second strike snapped her head back in a dazing blow to the temple. His hands grabbed at her arm, twisted, rotated, and exposed her to the final third attack. Hal's palm slammed into her already extended joint, snapping it in the wrong direction with wet, sickening scream.

She rolled there on the floor, writhing and howling in pain, effectively incapacitated. Miri was slow to gather herself up. Hal smiled and stood triumphantly, exhaling a deep cloud of vapor from his nostrils. His fingers, steadied now, easily loaded his pistol with two fresh rounds. He snapped the breech back closed with a sharp flick of the wrist and the sweet metallic sound of imminent victory.

“How does it feel now, huh!?” Colors shimmered in Hal's eyes as he stood over his oppressor. “It hurts,  doesn't it? It hurts having your life changed in an instant, dragging you down from the place you thought you stood!”

He grabbed Vanir by the throat and lifted her up high until her feet were barely dangling over the floor. “I never wanted to be here!” He slammed her into the wall, ringing her skull against the stone as his fingers tightened their grip. “I never wanted to die!” His free hand pressed the barrel of his pistol against her chest, aimed straight into her heart. “I only wanted to find peace! I only wanted to be happy!!!!”

“Hal...” Miri's voice weakly objected somewhere behind him, but he could hardly hear her. The pressure of the moment was deafening. Overwhelming. Inevitable.

Tears rolled down Vanir's face as she struggled to breathe. Her lips twisted and fought, struggling to form words to speak. Hal's tail leaned in close, bearing fangs that dripped venom in front of her face. “Do you know what it feels like to lose everything you love!?” He hovered his face inches from hers and pulled the hammer back with a satisfying *click*.  “Do you know what it's like to be given no mercy!!?”

“N-n-no.” Vanir gasped, her voice only emerging as a weak whisper. She was in tremendous pain, gasping for air, and struggling to move her body. More than all of that, though, she was afraid. Completely and absolutely afraid. Her eyes said it all. “P-please...”

Hal locked his eyes onto hers, drinking in her fear. “Let me teach you.”

The gunshot wasn't loud. It heralded the end of her life with a faint, meaty slap of metal slipping through flesh. A small fan of blood emerged from the gap between the barrel and her heart, and the sanguine droplets fell like rain into the suddenly still and silent air.

Hal released his grip and took a step back, letting her body slide down onto the floor. A trail of blood followed her down along the wall, ending where her back lay doubled over at an awkward and uncomfortable angle.

“Spirits, Hal!” Miri's voice was audible now: surprised, disbelieving, and sad. “....you killed her.”

The warm and comforting glow of revenge faded quickly, cooling and condensing into the bitter pit of panic. Hal's lungs sucked in air with an ever growing greed, and soon he was hyperventilating, unable to escape the reality of an act that could never be undone. Vanir was dead.

“Oh gods.” Hal half-sobbed, unable to reign in the racing of his heart or slow the terrible forward progression of time. Alarmed shouts of others echoed through the halls, pursued by the sounds of hurried footsteps. There was no way to go back. The only course that remained, once again, was to go forward.

“We need to go, Miri.” Hal's panicked voice could not have echoed any truer in that hallway. “We need to go, now.”

[End Chapter 19]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 19
I've had this chapter half finished since before Christmas, but haven't gotten around to it until now. Part of the reason is that real life was very busy, but I think part of it is I needed to work up the will to go through with it. This is officially the "shit just got real" segment of the story, for better or worse. The lead up and climax of this story should be quite the ride, especially for me. You don't know how many times I've lived through the last handful of chapters in my head. 

I hope you all enjoy the chapter, and I highly encourage any thoughts you may have or want to share. Thanks for reading and joining me on the rollercoaster.

****

Thanks so much for reading! 
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Hi everyone!

2014 has been one hell of a year, but the good news is I survived it and I'm looking forward to ending this year right and starting the new one with a bang. After going home to visit my family in RI for Christmas, I'm starting 2015 with a two-week solo motorcycle tour of New Zealand. 

If anyone is interested in following along in my upcoming journey, I've created a little wordpress blog where I'll be posting to as the trip goes on. You can find it here: adventuresofgeo.wordpress.com/

I'm very much looking forward to the trip. I really need some time to get away, clear my mind, and enjoy my own adventure with a minimum of scripting and planned distractions. It will just be me, a BMW GS650, and an ending destination for each day. I expect to meet a lot of great people, see some fantastic sights, and hopefully not go down the wrong side of the road and crash into a ravine.

Looking back on 2014, I feel like I've learned a lot. I've accomplished a lot professionally, made decent headway on my book, and grown a bit as a person. I found a great girl who I dated for a while, and though we eventually did part ways, I think we both gained a friend in each other. It's funny, how different people come into our lives when we least expect it. You could spend your whole life looking for love, only to finally realize that it comes to us unbidden, of its own accord. Though sometimes things may end, I'm still left with a young lifetime of fond memories with people I held close, and that isn't a bad thing at all.

I cannot express how happy I have been to receive great feedback and support from people here on dA as I slowly post each chapter in The Wayward Astronomer. I know it's been a long road, and I'm still not at the finish line yet, but it's in sight. I cannot wait to share with everyone the ending I've had trapped in my head for so long. Without the encouragement of others, most of you who I have never met, I may not have had the courage to carry things forward this far. Thank you. 

I hope each and every one of you who reads this has also had a great 2014, with plenty of things to be grateful for, and even better things on the horizon in 2015. Until next time, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Godspeed.

~Geo 
  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Glory 3usi9 by Nanou feat. Hatsune Miku
  • Reading: Joseph Campbell - The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Watching: The Last Samurai
  • Playing: Star Citizen
  • Eating: A sandwich
  • Drinking: Pepsi MAX
[Chapter 18]

Hal zipped up his leather jacket, experimentally flexing his bad leg. His knee made a loud popping sound that solicited a grimace.

“Are you going to be ok?” Miri asked the question Hal wondered himself.

“I hope so.”

The two of them were now in the 'evil rec room' yet again, but this time the entire cathedral seemed to be buzzing with activity. The network of agents Marcus claimed to command seemed to be heeding his summons, trickling in by the hour, usually alone or in very small groups. All of them looked fairly hardened, as one might expect from an army of ex-convicts. Many of them seemed eager to act, and were kept busy arming themselves and preparing for the events to come. The air had a tension to it that was impossible to overlook.

Rather than sally forth right away, Marcus preferred to sit tight until later in the day, sending Vanir ahead of the rest of them. Though the university was over in Calypsa district, if they traveled by telepad, the excursion would be shortened considerably. According to the clock on one wall, it was almost time to leave.

“Hal. Miri.” Marcus approached them with a smile, genuinely beaming with delight. He seemed to be put in a chipper mood by the sense of imminent action. “Are you ready for a date with destiny?”

“Oh, I don't know.” Hal pretended to be shy about it. “How does my hair look?”

“It looks like a sarcastic asshole.” Marcus returned fire with a smile, seemingly taking Hal's sarcasm in stride.  Undaunted, he turned his attention to Miri. “Now, don't say I haven't done anything nice for you. You have your old clothes back, and I even had them washed for you. No more 'creepy ceremonial robes' for a day like today.”

Miri ran one hand through her hair. “Thanks.” She sounded at least partly grateful, though not particularly impressed. Hal caught her amused glance. Though it was more of a practical gesture than a generous one (robes weren't great for trekking through the city inconspicuously), it was still an important symbol.  Miri certainly seemed a little brighter, now that she was dressed in the comfortable and warm expedition gear the two of them wore just before all this began.

Marcus too was wearing new clothes. He eschewed his normal upscale clothing for a medium weight trench coat that was subtly styled with epaulets and brass buttons. Paramilitary fashion was something of a recent trend that was making its way through various cuts of society. Marcus seemed to be no exception to that rule.

“I want to introduce the two of you to somebody.” Marcus looked over his shoulder and called out to someone in the background. “Dubs! It's time.”

Hal recognized the man that approached as the same hulking bear that had been beating the living daylights out of the punching bag yesterday. He stood well over 2 meters tall, and his brown fur was interrupted in places with the stark line of a deep, healed scar. This man, whoever he was, had certainly not been a stranger to violence.

“Dubs, I want to formally introduce you to my brother, Hal. You already know Miri, of course.” The hulking beast offered one hand for a handshake that practically engulfed Hal's forearm. “So, you the brothah of the Arch. Respect.” Dubs spoke with a deep booming voice that nonetheless had the unmistakable accent of a man who lived his life in the inner city. Norvondire district if Hal had to guess.

Hal gave Dubs a sharp nod as he finished the handshake. “Dubs, huh? Is that a nickname?”

“Yeah.” Dubs seemed prepared to answer the question as if he had done it thousands of times before. “My real name is William W. Wilson the Third. But that takes way too much work to say, and I ain't no 'Willie'.”

“Dubs it is then.” Hal nodded and cleared his throat. No doubt Dubs would be accompanying them as a little extra muscle to keep Hal and Miri from entertaining thoughts of heroism. In a close in fight Hal normally liked his chances pretty good, but between Dubs' sheer size and his bad leg, it wasn't an experiment he cared to run.

“Let's get going.” Marcus stepped forward and waved for the others to follow. “We'll take the telepad to save some time.”

The four of them walked out into the city streets to find that the sun was settling slowly into the final moments of daylight. The sky was already beginning to fade from sky blue into pastel hues of pink, lavender, and gold.

“Wow, look at the colors!” Miri smiled at the sunset, basking in the evening's fragile glory. After being cooped up inside for so long, it must have been a refreshing sight to take in. “They're beautiful.”

“Yes they are.” Hal grunted his agreement, contemplating the view. As the sun descended to the west, the moon was already up and shining in the east, half obscured behind the immensely tall spire that was Sabbaton Tower. As they walked past one of the main radial avenues that led inward towards the tower and the center of Anduruna, he glimpsed the anchor point for one of the several tension cables that held the massive tower steady. The spiral-wound metal cables were thicker than some tree trunks, and even under tension they seemed to visibly sag under their own mass.

“Impressive isn't it?” Marcus seemed to take note of the direction Hal was looking. “That a structure so grand could be built and held aloft securely.” He chuckled as a gust of bitter wind swept between buildings to chill them. “What a perfect symbol of all we can achieve, if only we sit down, lay back, and submit.”

“You're a very cheery man, Marcus.” Hal scoffed. “Has anyone told you that?”

Marcus laughed out loud at Hal's comment. “Oh, but I am.” His smile had a cutting sharpness to it. “I'm no engineer, but I wonder what would happen if those cables were to disappear all of a sudden and something were to happen to the foundation...”

“A lot of innocent people would die. That's what would happen.” Hal narrowed his eyes. Was Marcus seriously bold enough to suggest toppling the Sabbaton tower itself?

“Oh it would be quite the destructive event. Tragic. It would be an event everyone would remember for generations.”

“You're insane.” Miri muttered, her mood now subdued as the topic of conversation changed quickly from her original comment.

“Am I really?” Marcus countered, seeming to relish in the debate. “When a forest becomes thick and overgrown, it begins to decay. New life cannot take hold because it is choked out, and the entire ecosystem falls into stagnation. Nothing changes, nothing grows, until one fateful day when a storm rolls through and strikes down with a flash of lightning to set the entire area ablaze. The fire is destructive, yes. It lays waste to the old forest, but in that same stroke it fertilizes the land and sets the stage for new life to rise up, grow, and flourish.” Hal's brother held his arms out to his sides. “Is the storm truly evil?”

“Good and Evil are words we use to describe the actions of people, not nature.” Miri was emphatic in her response. “The storm isn't good or evil. It just is. The lightning doesn't choose to strike the forest, and the trees aren't sentient creatures! It's just nature, and nature doesn't make decisions like we're capable of doing.”

“But are we not all creatures of nature? Subject to the same natural laws?” Marcus sighed, shaking his head. “I don't know why I waste my breath trying to illuminate you short sighted people. We need to look past the familiar and accept its removal in order to discover a better world waiting beyond it.”

“That makes for fine poetry, Marco, but that doesn't change the fact that you're suggesting the murder of thousands of innocent lives.”

“Someone has to have the courage to do what is necessary.” Marcus pulled his jacket tighter as they approached the telepad station, his voice matching the temperature of the air. “If no one else will do it...  Let it be me.”

Everyone fell quiet for a while after that sobering comment. Words weren't going to change the opinion of anyone present. Miri clung close to Hal keeping him on the windward side of her to fend off the cold. His tail wrapped around her and rested on her opposite shoulder.  

The telepad itself was an elegantly engraved circle of stone set into the center of a large plaza. It was large enough in diameter to fit several dozen people within its perimeter. The area was cordoned off such that you had to buy a ticket in order to get access to the inside, but for that nominal fee the average citizen now had near-instantaneous access to the center of any other district in the city. Telepad technology was relatively new, but in a short handful of years it had revolutionized intra-city travel, making the manekale-pulled groundcars more a utility item for distributing bulk goods, rather than people. As far as Hal knew, telepad technology was controlled tightly by the government of Anduruna and not available private use.

Marcus purchased tickets for the four of them and led them into the circle where they waited with a handful of other clusters of people. A bored voice emerged from a loudspeaker as a telepad attendant announced their jump. “Please keep all limbs and belongings inside the circle. This next jump is to Calypsa station. Calypsa station is the next jump.”

After one more repeat of the same message, the attendant counted down to zero and initiated the jump.

There wasn't any sensation in the act of jumping itself. Hal merely blinked and found now that he was standing in a new circle in Calypsa district, and the tower was at a different angle to his orientation than it had been before. The aftereffects Hal always felt though. While most people experienced no ill effects, or built up a tolerance, Hal always felt nauseated after using a telepad. As a result, he rarely chose to take advantage of the convenience.

“Ahhh... home sweet home.” Marcus waved them forward, stepping out into the now-darker city streets. “Let's keep going. Vanir should be waiting for us near the university.”

Once they were free from the crowd of people at the telepad, Hal started up the conversation again. “You've been awfully quiet, Dubs. How did you get involved in all of this?”

“Me?” Dubs chuckled a bit, but the low bass of his laugh caused it to carry deep into the alleyways. “It start with beating theshit outta someone who done me wrong and gettin' thrown in the lockhouse for a couple. Then they come to me, say I can get out if I join this new 'second life' program. I took the deal.”

“So you're behind all this 'down with the establishment, new world order' stuff?”

“Hell yeah.” Dubs nodded with certainty. “Like the arch said, if we wanna get ahead, we can't jus' play by the rules. You can't change the rules. That won' work. You gotta change the whole game.”

Hal tried to keep his poker face intact. “But if they catch you, you'll be tried for treason. They'll execute you. All of you.”

“Thats why when you go, you go all in and get it done befo' they have that chance. And 'sides, I ain't afraid of dyin'. The arch put a gun in my hand and say 'Dubs, you roll wit' me, ain't no one gonna step on you again.' I like that.”

“If this is just a political movement, why the veil of religion?”

“Hey, if you got a problem wit' the goddess, you got a problem wit' me, aiight? Not everyone might care so much 'bout that sorta stuff, but I do.” Hal was surprised by Dubs' response. “I don' know if she's like... real, and like, messin' with the world direc'ly and stuff, but she say she gave us our powers for a reason. She say we all got a purpose. An' we got her gift to give us power and to protect this world from evil.”

Dubs certainly appeared to have a passion hiding beneath his bulk. “Ever since I sign on, Vanir been helpin' me learn to read by teachin' me the scrolls. They ain't so easy to read, but they mean somethin', you know? I like to believe that they ain't no lie. That we be actually more than what we look like on the outside.”

Hal furrowed his brows, falling into contemplative silence. After a moment had passed, Miri hesitantly spoke up, her voice no more than a confused whisper. “...you didn't know how to read?”

Dubs was quick to lash out in anger at her disbelief. “Don't you judge me, pretty little fox girl! You ain't got no idea what it's like, growin' up on the streets! When you fightin' every night just to make it to the next day!” Dubs made a disgusted grunting sound. “You ain't never had to fight for nothin'. You ain't never gonna know what it be like livin' my life.”  

“Easy Dubs. She didn't know.” Marcus reigned in his subordinate with a stern stare.

“Sorry, Arch.”

Marcus nodded his acknowledgment, proceeding to lead them through a few more side streets until they reached the circle in front of Calypsa University. Now that the sky was darkening, the tree lined avenue leading up to the main building had taken on a more sinister and foreboding appearance.

“Over here.” A voice spoke up from the alleyway to their left, and Vanir stepped forward from the shadows out onto the sidewalk. “Have our guides been any trouble?”

“No, they're behaving.” Marcus gave his lover a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “What about on your end?”

Vanir's bright blue eyes seemed to almost glow in the dim light. “No trouble so far. Not much foot traffic on account of the wind and cold. Little activity entering or leaving the building. I have a groundcar waiting in the alley for our extraction.”

“We're not taking the telepad back?” Miri sounded concerned.

“I don't know how big the meteor fragment is, but if it's the same size as the last one, it won't be easy to just carry through public transport; Especially if things go wrong and we need to get out quick.” Vanir didn't seem to be in a very hospitable mood today, and her tone of voice was curt and condescending. “Don't you worry about the details. All you need to to do is get us to the meteor without running into security.”

Marcus nodded in agreement, turning to Hal and Miri. “Well, this is your territory. Why don't you lead the way.”

Hal swallowed. “Ok.” A nervousness seemed to now settle over him, drying his mouth. “Our best bet is one of the side stairwells. No one really uses them.”

“Then by all means brother, lead on.”

Hal and Miri started forward, walking up the side of the lawn to the edge of the building. Even without using his power, Hal could sense Miri's uneasiness. “This is so weird, Hal. We shouldn't be breaking into our own school. I've got a really bad feeling about all this.”

“I know, but let's just get it over with.” Both of them were already whispering, a sense of tense caution present throughout the whole party. Hal tried the side door, and it moved only a tiny bit before being held up by the locked handle with a rude, sudden stop.

“It's locked.” Hal stated the obvious with a frown.

“Of course it is. Hang on...” Miri began to search the pockets of her recently-returned jacket. “Where is- Oh! Here it is. I still have my ID. I wonder if they ever deactivated it...” She slid the card through the little reader to the side of the door, and they could all hear a faint but distinct click as the lock temporarily disengaged. “...I guess not.”

Hal opened the door and stepped into the empty stairwell. The cold interior lighting matched the air now leaking inside as they all filed into the narrow ground floor landing. Hal could already begin to feel a weight pulling on his heart. They weren't far from the meteor. His tail looked straight up through the center of the spiraling staircase to the floors above, flicking its tongue rapidly.

Hal took a deep breath and looked at everyone around him. Dubs was following his tail's gaze, staring up the center column of the stairs. Marcus and Vanir were waiting with a look of impatient but fixated expectation. Miri bit her lip, looking as worried as Hal had ever seen her. He allowed himself one last exhale before activating his power and letting the unseen colors of the world wash over him.  

The static was here. The gravity was here. He barely acknowledged the prismatic kaleidoscope of reflecting light that surrounded him and quickly ascended the stairs. Every inhale added to the tingling sense of energy that drew him ever upwards.

“Hal, please slow down.” Miri's voice chased after him.

“Be quiet you fools!” A sharp whisper from Vanir also gave pursuit.

Every footstep echoed loudly in the confines of the tall but narrow chamber, barely registering in Hal's awareness as he passed each threshold. Second floor. Third floor. Fourth floor. The light was here. He stepped through the door into an empty hallway, and quickly paced onwards past doors to unlit labs.

“I don't think he can hear us.” Marcus' voice had an urgency to it, but it lurked close behind Hal, waiting just over his shoulder.

The placard to the next room read '409 – Geology Lab'. Hal didn't read the text so much as sense it, his eyes focused on the searing white orb of light that hid just on the other side. He pushed the door open, and the ceiling lights automatically turned on as a sensor detected motion inside the room.

Hal marched forward and came to rest in front of a long and deep work table. The light was coming from the center of a stone slab that lay in the middle of the workspace. Hal couldn't resist now that he was this close. He reached for the light, extending taloned fingers towards the source of his fixation... and touched only sandy, coarse stone. He blinked. This wasn't right.

“Hal.” Marcus' hand firmly gripped one shoulder, and his forceful voice shook Hal out of his power. He blinked again, drawing a ragged breath as he adjusted back to normal light.

“Wha?” Hal looked bewildered, but it quickly became clear what he was actually looking at. The stone tablet in question was a fossil, roughly one arms length wide and fairly thick. Visible on the surface was the well preserved fossil of two ryuu-nekos, partially entangled with one another in the shape of a rough circle. One appeared to have his jaws around the neck of the other, as if they had died together, still locked in combat. The entire fossil was not yet exposed, and there was clear evidence that the caretakers of this fossil had been slowly chipping and brushing away to reveal the remainder.

Miri saw the fossil and gasped in surprise, taken aback by the sight. Vanir spoke, an uncharacteristically unnerved quality weaved among her words. “What is this?”

“It's here. It has to be here.” Hal's tail flicked its tongue at the center of the circle between the two ancient creatures, kicking up a tiny cloud of dust as it tasted for his target. He looked around and found a miniature hammer and chisel sitting to one side of the table. He snatched up the tools and tapped away at the area where he remembered seeing the meteor-light. Normally fossil cleanup was a very slow and delicate process, but Hal perhaps was using a bit too much force, and after only the 7th or 8th tap, a large flake of rock chipped away, revealing beneath a dark and other-worldly core.

The second meteor.

“There it is!” Marcus eagerly watched as Hal continued to reveal it with the hammer and chisel, eventually freeing it from its prehistoric prison of rock and bone. “They must not have realized it was hiding within. I can't believe they came that close without feeling it.”

“Maybe only certain people can sense the meteor remotely.” Miri offered a hesitant theory, but her fear was tangible now. “Were those ryuu-nekos fighting over it?” She was struggling to hold back tears. “They died... battling over this?”

Everyone was leaning in close now to get a better look. Hal liberated the meteor from one last fragment of rock, and pried it free, holding the cold familiar weight in one hand. It was maybe the size of a grapefruit, and already tiring the one arm that held it tight. It reflected almost no light, appearing in the sterile walls of the geology lab to be almost as black as black could be. It leeched heat from his fingertips and palm with all too eager tenacity.

Marcus reached over and took the meteor from Hal's grasp, beaming with delight as he held it for himself. “Finally....” He wrapped one arm around his brother, giving him a tight hug. “I knew I could count on you, Hal. I always knew we were brought back together for a reason.”

“What in the world is going on in here!!!!”

A sharp alarmed voice startled them all from behind. Hal couldn't stop himself from instinctively jumping in surprise. Vanir and Dubs spun and drew their weapons in a flash, pointing them towards the unwelcome intruder.

“Doctor Kincaid!!!” Miri called out, relief intermingling with surprise. It was none other than their old mentor, who had just unfortunately stumbled into something he was never meant to see.

“Oh dear!” The aging cardinal gasped in surprise as weapons were pointed at him, and he held up his arms in surrender. His crimson feathers were fading in many places from deep red to a pale pink or even white, betraying his advanced age. He noticed his students not long after the weapons. “Miriel!? Halcyon!? You're alive!?”

Miri rushed forward, heedless of the danger, and engulfed the old bird in an emotional, tear-filled hug. “Oh, Miriel my dear, when you didn't return I feared the worst! We thought you had a terrible accident, falling from a cliff or getting swept up in an avalanche! We searched and searched, but never found you! I'm so glad to see that you're alive!!!”

“Step away from him, Miri.” Vanir interrupted the reunion with a sharp command. “Now.”

“No!” She defiantly held her ground, holding her arms out in a shielding gesture. “I won't let you hurt him! I won't let you hurt any more people!!!!”

“Dubs.”

The bear grabbed Miri with one massive hand and yanked her away, tossing her back like a weightless ragdoll.

“Nooo!!!” Miri screamed in desperation, but was powerless to stop from being torn away. She fell to the ground and slid across the waxed floor, coming to rest at Hal's feet.

“Get in the way again and I'll shoot you.”

“Hey!!!” Hal and Kincaid protested in unison, both angry at the manhandling. The old professor huffed himself up in indignation, still looking impossibly small in comparison to Dubs. “Stop this at once! Who are you people!? What in the world are you doing here? I demand to know what's going on!” He turned to Hal, anger and bewilderment clear as day. “Hal, who are these people?!”

“Doctor-”

“Hal, shut up.” Marcus pointed his own pistol in Hal's direction as a warning. “No one can know we were here.”

“What?” Kincaid took a half step back, holding his hands even higher in the air. The atmosphere was beginning to feel like fear and smell like panic itself.

“You can't just kill him Marcus!”

“Don't say my name, you idiot!”

Vanir's voice grew taut, to the very edge of breaking. “Now we have no choice.”

“No! Don't do this!” Miri was hysterical.

Dubs aimed his springer at Kincaid's skull.  

“WAIT.” Marcus cut through the mania with one authoritative word. Everyone held their breath as an odd silence fell upon the room. Marcus turned his yellow and gray eyes from Kincaid to Dubs, who stood like a statue, frozen in time one moment away from pulling the trigger.

“No mess.”

Dubs nodded, and the hysteria was set back in motion. Setting aside his pistol, Dubs marched up to Kincaid and with an engulfing grasp wrestled the old man to the floor, squeezing fingers around the small neck as he strangled him in a display of complete and brutal violence.

Miri screamed at the terrible sight unfolding before them, and Hal stopped her from running out by grabbing her and holding her close, pressing her head tight against his chest so she couldn't see. She wailed and sobbed at the top of her lungs, which was the only sound Hal could hear over the entire horrifying act.

A halo appeared over Dubs' head as the bear activated his own power, and arcs of blue electricity funneled down his arms and into his hands, where it delivered an intense electric shock into his victim. Kincaid spasamed  and convulsed beneath the onslaught, and at that point even Hal had to turn away to stop himself from having the entire murder indelibly burned into his memory.

It wasn't long before the deed was done, and the air started to smell a little bit like burnt hair. Miri couldn't stop crying. Save for her, the room was now dead quiet. Hal continued to hold her close, his back still turned to the aftermath.

“What now, Arch?” Dubs asked, his booming voice emerging without a hint of guilt or regret.

Marcus sounded disgusted and disappointed. “Hide the body in one of the closets. Then get ready to move out.” Hal heard the sound of something being dragged along the floor as his brother sighed in frustration. “What a fucking disaster....”

[End Chapter 18]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 18
This chapter ended up almost twice as long as my average length, hence the moderate delay in posting. Actually tagged this one with a mature warning due to some violence so if you aren't able to view it here on dA, you can find it on Fanfiction.net

I really enjoyed this chapter for the variety it gave me to explore some new characters, debate ideals, and have tension and action as well. The snowball is now beginning to roll down that hill, ladies and gentlemen. It cannot be stopped. 

I always welcome anyone's feedback, now more than ever as I bring us into the decisive and defining moments of the story. Sharing this tale is very important to me, and I want you all to know that I appreciate your time and attention more than I can express.

****

Thanks so much for reading! 
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Hi everyone!

2014 has been one hell of a year, but the good news is I survived it and I'm looking forward to ending this year right and starting the new one with a bang. After going home to visit my family in RI for Christmas, I'm starting 2015 with a two-week solo motorcycle tour of New Zealand. 

If anyone is interested in following along in my upcoming journey, I've created a little wordpress blog where I'll be posting to as the trip goes on. You can find it here: adventuresofgeo.wordpress.com/

I'm very much looking forward to the trip. I really need some time to get away, clear my mind, and enjoy my own adventure with a minimum of scripting and planned distractions. It will just be me, a BMW GS650, and an ending destination for each day. I expect to meet a lot of great people, see some fantastic sights, and hopefully not go down the wrong side of the road and crash into a ravine.

Looking back on 2014, I feel like I've learned a lot. I've accomplished a lot professionally, made decent headway on my book, and grown a bit as a person. I found a great girl who I dated for a while, and though we eventually did part ways, I think we both gained a friend in each other. It's funny, how different people come into our lives when we least expect it. You could spend your whole life looking for love, only to finally realize that it comes to us unbidden, of its own accord. Though sometimes things may end, I'm still left with a young lifetime of fond memories with people I held close, and that isn't a bad thing at all.

I cannot express how happy I have been to receive great feedback and support from people here on dA as I slowly post each chapter in The Wayward Astronomer. I know it's been a long road, and I'm still not at the finish line yet, but it's in sight. I cannot wait to share with everyone the ending I've had trapped in my head for so long. Without the encouragement of others, most of you who I have never met, I may not have had the courage to carry things forward this far. Thank you. 

I hope each and every one of you who reads this has also had a great 2014, with plenty of things to be grateful for, and even better things on the horizon in 2015. Until next time, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Godspeed.

~Geo 
  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Glory 3usi9 by Nanou feat. Hatsune Miku
  • Reading: Joseph Campbell - The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Watching: The Last Samurai
  • Playing: Star Citizen
  • Eating: A sandwich
  • Drinking: Pepsi MAX

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:iconezioauditore97:
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2015  Student General Artist
I don't have a wordpress account so I couldn't comment,but I've been reading your blog and all the entries have been really entertaining reads with some nice photography as well.

 Anyways hope you finish your trip on a high note!
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:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2015
Thanks Ezio! I'm glad that you've been reading and enjoying the blog! I'm constantly surprised by some of the shots I've gotten with this $90 camera. I have a lot of good memories to look back on and remember.
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:iconezioauditore97:
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2015  Student General Artist
You're welcome! Photos are fun,but memories are even better.
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:iconezioauditore97:
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Student General Artist
Hey know you've been busy and understandably so ,but you'll make some time for the Halloween contest,right?
Reply
:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014
Absolutely. There will be a Halloween contest. That's a guarantee. There should be announcement soon once David gives me all the prize and category details. 
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:iconezioauditore97:
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Student General Artist
Excellent!I also cannot wait for that aforementioned Caption contest;maybe it got pushed back to Christmas like the one before?Regardless I've got a nice little something for the contest and I daresay it's one of my better doodles.
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:iconusblynx:
USBLynx Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Okay I just went to your website thats linked to your Deviant ID and I found a few interesting things... One: the plane is called a Lynx... you can guess why I noticed it. I just thought that was funny. Two: the Lynx is in your Deviant ID picture. I think that is really cool. Three: I see that the company that owns the website are hiring... is it entry level or experienced level hiring? Im looking for a new job, so I have been poking around.

By the way, I have a few sketches for chapter 8 of Wayward Astronomer. I have not posted them yet, Because I do not know where to go from this point on...
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:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2014
Sorry, I was slow to respond to your note. Feel free to post the sketches to your stash on dA (or some other site) and then you can link me to the sketches in a note. I'll take a look and give you my thoughts!

We are hiring at XCOR for several different positions, so read the job descriptions to get an idea for what each one requires. Most of them are technical jobs (engineering, machining, or technician)
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:iconr-star97:
R-Star97 Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you very much for the fave Kafel ^^ (If I'm allowed to call you like that)
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:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2014
No problem. A lot people call me Kafel. It's all good
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