“Why can’t I use him?” Hales stormed at her superior officer. Cull Marcarios pinched his nose to lessen his headache.
It didn’t work.
“You are out of line, Ailor! He is an enemy so we can’t risk him turning around and melting us. That’s one damned good reason.”
“Daedal is hours away so figure out your defensive plan!”
“That is my plan!” Hales shouted in exasperation. She threw up her hands in added annoyance.
“Potentially creating a black hole is about the most foolish idea I’ve ever heard.” Marcarios snapped, his patience all but gone. He had little time to prepare his fifty soldiers to defend against an army. He considered Hales to be one of his top captains on this mission and she was losing it.
“I understand the possibilities you see in comboing with Edeno, but we don’t know what will happen. We certainly can’t afford to find out now.” Marcarios tried thinking objectively. Hales was, afterall, not even in her twenties. Having a mission go this wrong would give anyone a meltdown at that age. Except none of the other young captains were losing their composure.
Her expression remained on the edge of rage and tears.
“When we get out of here alive, you can go to the Research division and discuss your idea further. For now, figure something else out.”
“All we need is a couple trial runs to get it down. We could wipe the enemy army and be out of here by tomorrow.” Hales argued, “I can sense this will work!”
Edeno, who was bound and had his wound stitched, an eyepatch covering the burned socket, joined in. “I sense it too.”
“Get him out of here!” Barked Marcarios to one of his soldiers. “And gag him.”
“Yes sir!” The soldier grabbed Eden and roughly dragged him away.
Marcarios turned to Liem, Hales’ torturer. “Get information out of him, he likely has a high clearance level. He should know how Daedal has our intel.”
Liem hesitated a second, casting a glance at Hales who only minutes before ordered him not to lay a hand on the enemy Specter. Cull Marcarios outranked his captain.
“Aye,” saluted Liem.
“Any means necessary.” Marcarios added.
“Don’t touch him!” Hales shouted.
Marcarios exhaled heavily. “Argue with my orders again and you will be court marshalled and removed from the military once we get back to Garghent.”
“Fine.” Relented Hales. She made a fist and stormed off. Tears were already streaming down her cheeks.
“We’ll leave Edeno alone, for now.” Rescinded Marcarios. Liem nodded.
“We’ve got work to do.” Marcarios sighed and put thoughts of Hales and Edeno out of his mind. The issue of Daedal’s army approaching was a much more pressing matter.
“I’ll talk to her.” Dartan declared.
He followed after Hales and found her sitting down. He picked a spot to the side, giving her plenty of space. He stayed silent as she sobbed.
“I don’t know why I’m crying.” She wiped the tears and forced them to stop. “I don’t even care about this!”
“What is wrong with me,” complained Hales. She didn’t feel right and she didn’t know why.
“This mission is stupid and doesn’t make sense. Garghent doesn’t need more factories.” Hales continued, feeling the need to rant.
“I hate all this grass its way too tall and itchy and it is so boring.”
Dartan considered them to be good friends, or at least on good terms. They trained, fought and studied at the same school for years. She had somewhat been a part of his and Magun’s friend group, at least during school hours which was ninety percent of their time. But he didn’t exactly know what she was like outside of that setting, perhaps war doesn’t count either.
Bottom line was, Dartan really didn’t know her on a personal level and so wasn’t sure the best way to handle this situation. He wished Magun was here, he always was a better conversationalist and had a natural charm.
Dartan’s analytical mind never turned off, and there was an army approaching. He’d go with that angle.
“Want to make a super meteor? It’s no black hole, sure, but I bet we could still take out that army.” He offered.
“Okay.” Hales replied, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her arm. She was beginning to regain her cool. “You think you can add a Rule to one of my asteroids and make it ten times bigger?”
“It’s worth a try!” Dartan said optimistically.
“Solar.” Hales drew out twenty asteroids and kept their sizes no larger than a fist.
“Will that be enough to practice on?”
“I’ll have them orbit that pole.” She let the stream of asteroids gravitate lazily.
“Rule.” Dartan began working on increasing the asteroids, his world transforming into a mathematician’s heaven.
“What’s your max size right now?” He asked absent mindedly as his hand went through writing motions.
“For asteroids, about six meters in diameter.”
“Not bad,” said Dartan, his voice more monotone than he meant. Six meters is actually huge!
“The questions don’t seem too difficult, but I imagine it gets exponentially more complex the larger the starting size of the meteor I’m working on is.”
“That’s alright, they have so many tanks and explosives that all we need is a way to draw their heavy fire.”
“True. I think I can do a times four size increase. But at this small size that’s practically nothing.”
“What about for my max?”
“I’m estimating about one point eighty-two times increase. So not even doubling your max. Eleven meters?” Dartan projected.
“How many could you do?” Hales asked.
Dartan paused his equations and looked at Hales. “One every couple of minutes.”
“Hmm…” Hales thought about whether this plan was even worth it. They’d be hit by a number of tank shells in between a single semi-large meteor.
An idea struck her after more pondering.
“Say Dartan, what if you added your times four Rule to my smaller meteors while they were still under my control?”
Dartan had to pause again. “You mean while you can still grow them?” He asked for confirmation.
Hales nodded, “uh-huh.”
“I don’t know…” Dartan started hesitantly. “Well shit, it’s worth a try.” He repeated.
“Give me one second.” Dartan pulled out a capsule and let an excessive amount of pills spill into his hand.
“Isn’t that a bit much?”
Dartan had around ten painkillers and tipped his head back and swallowed them a few at a time. He washed it down with loud gulps of water.
“My heads been pounding since I made Genjam fireproof. Besides, it’s going to be a hard day.”
Hales remained worried that Dartan was pushing himself too far. She pulled out a single miniature asteroid anyways.
“Let’s see what happens.” Her excitement growing steadily at the prospect of a super meteor. She always wanted to use something like that.
Dartan wrote in the air his Rule, the equation floating near the asteroid. To Hales it looked like a cypher and she could only imagine the sort of headache it took to figure it out.
“Oh! I think I got it.” Dartan was surprised that the equation barely altered from when he solved it out of her control compared to in it. He was sure that it would be nearly impossible, if not absolutely impossible to write a Rule when her space objects were under her influence.
“Here goes nothing.” Hales grimaced under the expected energy it would take. She started to expand the asteroid.
Oddly enough, it took less energy than normal to grow. She barely had to try, it was almost growing itself. There was an underlying heaviness she couldn’t quite explain though. But the actual process of making it larger took no effort.
She never physically touched her space rocks as they floated over her finger but this one she felt the force of in full.
Perhaps the gravity was amplified as well, thought Hales.
Regardless, Dartan’s Rule worked wonders! Her asteroid grew at an astonishing rate.
Hales had to raise her hand over her head.
The asteroid capped at an incredible size. At least sixty meters in diameter!
Something of this scale naturally drew the attention of the other soldiers and Specters. How could it not?
Whoops and whistles followed the approach of the crowd,
“Impressive,” Said Xander with starch approval.
“Damn, how ‘bout that!” Corvan remarked while rubbing his chin.
“So you’re going to hold that until they come?” Juy asked with awe in her voice.
“Um…” Hales uttered.
“Are you stuck?” Dartan asked, suddenly full of concern.
“No…” Hales dismissed. Her arm was starting to get really tired and she was completely stuck.
“What did you guys do?” Genjam directed his question at Dartan but cast an anxious glance at the megalith that cast a shadow over the area.
“I added a Rule to Hales’ asteroid,” explained Dartan. “Increase its size so she could make something big enough to take out the tanks or draw their fire away from us.”
“Is that a good idea?”
“The idea was good, but…” Dartan didn’t need to say more.
Cull Marcarios strolled over to the scene.
“I was wondering where the sun went, should have figured it was you.” He spoke with dry humor but glad she was back to her reckless self that didn’t rely on the enemy.
“She’s stuck.” Someone said.
“I’m stuck.” Hales admitted at the same time. Hales never anticipated the consequences of growing an object beyond her normal capacity. Now she knew.
“Throw it to the side.” Marcarios ordered.
“Breaking your limits is the core principle of being an Aspecter. I can’t imagine a better time than when death is threatening with a giant rock.”
It’s interesting, thought Hales, that death is such a powerful catalyst for humans to push themselves further than their most distant ability. Death could strike anyone at any moment in a variety of elaborate and simple ways without warning, yet only when death was obvious and lingering did the response of adrenaline kick in.
Almost getting sniped earlier did nothing to expand her powers.
But here she was and why was it so different now? Is it the length of time exposed to potential death? Are humans really limited to only that last chance act of desperation in the moment?
Marcarios noticed her concentration was slipping as she spaced out. “If you don’t break your limits, that rock is going to crush all of us but especially it is going to crush you.”
Hales didn’t respond. Back to reality, she grit her teeth and tried moving her arm.
No budge. She physically couldn’t move her arm, like an invisible brick wall surrounded her.
She tried again.
Now her legs started to shake from the strain, her whole body trembling.
Her heart felt like it was going to explode out of her chest. Dizziness swamped her vision as the edges darkened.
She stopped pushing and instead focused on her breathing.
Hales closed her eyes.
She began an inner dialogue. “Okay Hales, just move your arm and pretend nothing is there…”
“So that didn’t exactly work. Definitely something there.”
Genjam broke the silence as everyone watched. “Want me to-” Marcarios cut him off with a harsh ‘shh’.
“What an embarrassment,” Hales said, resuming her mental dialogue. “Everyone here is watching you sweat with your arm hanging up like a fool! It’s not even technically touching anything!”
“This. Is. So. Stupid. I’m not going to die in the most ridiculous and asenine way ever. Oh look, idiot Hales the Solar Specter died from her own idiot power.”
“I’m sorry power, you’re not an idiot.”
“Great, now she’s talking to her power!”
“Screw this enlightenment ‘center your mind and body’ bullshit. Be one with the universe! Gee why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because my universe is about to fall on me!”
“Talis Ranis is a senile old man who can’t even tell the closet from the toilet!”
“Have you ever met him? No. So how can you say he is senile? Maybe you’re the senile one, stupid Hales!”
“Get out of my head!
“I am my head.”
“Don’t you mean, you are my head?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Good point, me.”
“What are you going to do about this rock-”
“What? You were going to say rock bottom weren’t you?”
“You mean I was going to say rock bottom?
“The rock is above you. Duh.”
“Oh, so now I’m under the rock? Like it’s better than me? That’s grand!”
“Yeah yeah yeah, rock is better so just let it fall on me?”
“That’s actually not a bad idea.”
“What! Now you have a death wish?”
“No, what are you talking about? I think letting it fall is the key.”
“The key to your casket?”
“Nooo, the key to pushing it the hell out of the way?”
“That somehow doesn’t sound reasonable.”
“Too late, trying it.”
“No wait, don’t!”
Hales ended the dialogue.
Her galaxy eyes flared open.
She slowly, with as much control as possible, let the asteroid ease its way down.
She relaxed her body, only gently keeping the meteor from crashing to the ground instantly.
Once the momentum of it started, it was impossible to stop. Centimeter by centimeter the rock was descending.
She started humming, preparing herself.
A moment before the gradually falling asteroid would begin crushing her finger, she let out her building shout and with it all the force she could muster.
Flowing with the inexorable impetus of the rock, Hales was able to shift its direction sideways. And down.
The asteroid landed with a mighty bang. The ground shook and the asteroid lay still as the world around trembled for a moment only but not longer.
The exhaustion in Hales was absolute. Her body felt like a single, cohesive bruise.
“You’re a damned fine Specter, Hales.” Marcarios complemented. It reminded Hales of when Klyle told her a similar thing back on the mountain. If only the Master was here, everything could have been simpler.
She smiled as her body cramped and forced her to recline and lay down.
“Less than an hour sir!” A soldier said, calling out the update.
“When you’re ready, come join us in the defense.” With that, he began bellowing orders to his soldiers but the sounds just sounded like discomboluted music to the dozing off Hales.
Dartan brought her water and she groggily drank from it.
“Thanks.” She mumbled.
“Got any more asteroids in you?” Dartan asked gingerly.
Hales saw that his eyes were bloodshot. He looked funny. He was obviously hurting from his own minute breaking. Commitment breaking? Whatever Marcarios was saying to break…
“Wake me up when the fighting starts.” Hales said softly.
She faded into a dreamless sleep.
It was only when Hales knew she couldn’t get enough sleep that her body allowed her to crash in an instant.
A calloused hand shook her awake.
“Shootin’s starting, cap’n.” It was her squadmate, Saccha, who woke her up. Hales didn’t feel as bad as she thought. In a way, kind of good, surprisingly. She accepted his helping hand and was hoisted to her feet.
Hales started walking.
There it goes.
The soreness and fatigue hit her like a hammer blow. She forced her stiff legs to move and ignored the cramping. Saccha kept her tender pace. He’s a considerate teammate, thought Hales.
“I’ll walk you through the defense plan. We got magic boy and ice girl and a few others workin’ on that meetore. They came up with one hullava strategy.” So Uana and Bregan were going to utilize her meteor, Hales translated mentally.
“The Cull’s got a lightning wall set up around the perimeter, melts bullets but it’s only about this high.” Saccha leveled his hand around his stomach.
“Comms got in touch with HQ and they sending helicopters to evac us out of here. Got to hold out for two days at least.”
“They haven’t started shooting rockets at us?” Hales questioned.
“Them Daedal folk didn’t expect the fact’ry to be occupied by us Garghent folk so we have the element of advantage.”
“You mean surprise?” Hales corrected despite herself.
“No, they sure know we’re here. I bet that meetore of yours gave us away.”
“Nevermind.” That was why it was despite herself.
Hales grunted as she climbed the stairs to the entrance walls. They had the benefit of defending the wall where trucks loaded and unloaded. Unfortunately there were no trucks that they could take to drive away.
Her team saluted her as she joined them on the wall.
“This is my spot.” Saccha crouched down to where a dozen guns were laid neatly in a row up against the wall railing. They were the dead Daedal soldiers’ weapons.
“Saves on reloadin’ time.” Explained Saccha.
Hales studied the lightning barrier Marcarios set up. He had placed small, extendable rods every few meters along the railing of the walls. It was both discrete and practical. The actual lightning used was more like a sheet of bluish-white energy.
They had their defense pretty well established, but what about the offense?
Hales looked into the field where the enemy settled, a few hundred meters out and a few hundred soldiers strong. The tanks were being loaded further behind.
There were a few preliminary rifle shots on both sides, testing aim and luck.
Hales’ question of offense was answered when she saw something unexpected.
It was her meteor, only frozen solid and sailing high through the air.
Seeing her former classmates breaking their limits got the blood flowing in her veins, all boiling and seething with the thrill of power.
Her body screamed in pain. This she ignored.
The fighting was only beginning and Hales was the best.