The hallway was a short stretch of shining plasteel and pale green walls, flickering under the light of fluorescent suns. The doors, set at regular intervals along the wall, were of a blood with the walls, identical and marked with digital number displays.
The grey of her armor marred the smooth white surface of the plasteel, a shadow cast on the purity of its color. Her eyes were heavy-lidded with fatigue, blue irises barely visible through the curtain. Aaliyah had been leaning on the wall for nearly four hours now, and the long night was finally taking its toll.
His pale, feverish face gazes up at her with vacant eyes, like patches of summer sky. The medics can’t even get a word in before she has him in her arms, pounding towards the medical units.
The fear in their eyes was nothing compared to the terror in her heart; Dante was dying and she knew it.
The intensive care pod loomed up to her right, swollen to enormous proportions in the rush of adrenaline. Aaliyah immediately dumps her son into the cushioned interior, slamming the steel lid shut with one hand as the other shoots into an arm-shaped socket.
The medics are working all around her, lobbing vials of chemicals and fragile beakers full of dangerous material back and forth between one another. It’s a wonder the floor isn’t dissolving underneath them.
She twists her other arm into the socket, the mechanical arms inside the pod whirring to life. She makes a hasty snatch for the healing syringes, almost toppling the rack as she does so. But she quickly grabs hold of one, whipping it to Dante’s neck and stabbing the cruel-looking hypodermic into his neck. Dante jerks up, drawing his first breath in nearly five minutes, and screams in pain. Aaliyah looks away as her apprentice thrashes about, the agony of cellular regeneration wracking his body in fiery waves.
All that matters is that he’s safe. That he’ll live.
Aaliyah jerked up from the dream, rubbing her eyes and cursing softly. She had had to be there the entire time, taking an active role in the medical work after his stabilization. Everyone had helped, and that was more likely than not why he was still alive. Well, it didn't matter anymore. He was a confirmed runner, and considered an adult within the eyes of the community. This was one of the most momentous occasions in any runner's life, and Dante had passed with flying colors.
She smiled to herself.
She could not deny she was proud of him, as she was for any new member of the runner hierarchy.
Is he ready?
The thought troubled her. Dante was young and strong and fierce, there could be no denying it. But the young are almost never ready for the challenges of the old.
She lapsed into brooding thought, fighting to stay awake and planning for the future. She was interrupted by another runner. Jac, the leader of the Omega division.
He looked like he had sat on a porcupine.
"What do you need, Jac?" she asked pleasantly, adjusting a lock of her brown hair.
His eyes flashed with anger, and his voice was sharp as a knife.
"What did you tell him, up on the helioscraper?"
She feigned innocence, lifting her eyebrows and shrugging her shoulders defensively.
"Exactly what you and I were told before we had our confirmations."
His eyes widened in rage. Then his fist was whistling up at her face, a deadly fast attack that could smash bones. Aaliyah caught it almost casually in a grip that could shatter stone and squeezed. Hard.
She raised an eyebrow as he grimaced in pain, grunting with agony as she twisted his wrist.
"Jac, is that any way to treat your little sister? I haven’t had my sleep."
She squeezed harder and felt bone splinter under the pressure. He yelled out and he tried to rip his arm out of her grip, pushing away with all his might. She let go and he stumbled to the floor, clutching his fractured wrist.
She waited for him to compose himself, which took several minutes of grunting breaths and something passing for a death glare. As her brother finally stood back up, he was no less angry; but caution had been restored to his thoughts. He took a breath and resumed.
"You told him that we were out to liberate Omega?! You know damn well that the Forerunner has forbidden anything like that!" She raised an eyebrow.
"Some of us actually hold to our laws, Jac," she said coldly. He sighed loudly, hands making an exasperated gesture in her direction.
"Or have you forgotten the Virtues that the first Forerunner gave us? It’s our duty to preserve freedom wherever we find it and bring it to those who can’t help themselves. I told him what I was told, and what he needed to hear. Why the hell shouldn’t-”
"Old laws can be set aside by any Forerunner and you goddamn well know it!" he said hotly.
That shut her up.
Her eyes were wide and disbelieving, incredulity and anger written across her expression.
"He cant... he didn't... did he?" Her voice was like a broken record, jarred and disjointed.
"Yeah. And he did it for our survival! If we continue with the ways the first Forerunner presented, we‘ll attract way too much attention from the Corporation!"
"Jac, that's exactly what we want! We want them to waste soldiers on us! You know we're superior fighters, we can handle anything that they throw our way!"
"We've lost too many good runners on attack and defense. We need to adopt a new angle, a new approach if we want to survive!"
"Your words, or the Forerunner's?" she replied venomously. He went red, the insult of toadying too much even for him. She did not wait for him to retort.
"And I'm guessing that's not all! I bet he wants us in a new niche as well! So what's it to be, Jac? Couriers? Spies? Soldiers for that new movement, the Demokratos Party?"
"All three, Aaliyah," he said quietly.
Again, she fell silent in a heartbeat. Her sapphire blue eyes were wide and furious, and when she was gain able to call up words, she spoke like someone who was holding back a murderous rage.
"Mercenaries," she said in that deadly calm voice. Jac instinctively took a step backwards; he knew her temper better than anyone.
"He wants us sell our ideals for money. He wants us to become prostitutes, using our talents for any bastard who can pay enough cash to hire us. He wants us to throw away everything for wealth," Her hands were clenched in fists.
Fear raced across Jac’s features, and he attempted to placate her. “Aaliyah... it wasn't my decision, but it's the runner law now!"
Her eyes blazed as she drew a breath to answer, muscles tensing for a fight. Then a moan emanated from Dante’s room, faint and tired.
She whipped around, completely forgetting Jac, and opened the door fast as she could. He was stirring on the bed, his eyes flickering open and closed as he flexed his arm and leg muscles. She rushed over and checked his pulse. There was no sign of a heart attack in the steady drumbeat. His eyes slowly opened, and his voice was groggy.
"Have I died and gone to heaven?"
"Is that any way to talk about your teacher?"
He chuckled and closed his eyes. Then something seemed to register as they bolted back open and he jerked up from the mattress.
"I'm not in the Initiate's Quarters? Where am I? What's happened?!" His voice held a tint of excitement, but not a little fear. Aaliyah could understand perfectly; she had been like him once.
She laid a hand on his chest and pushed him firmly back onto the bed, her voice soothing.
"Easy, kid. Take a minute to breathe. You aren't an initiate anymore, Dante. You're a full runner, an official adult in the community."
He sat there for a second, digesting this news. Then a wide grin broke out on his face, and he pumped his fist into the air with a loud shout.
Aaliyah smiled with him and dumped the Objective onto his lap. The soupy contents of the canister swirled in the light like slime, glossy and thick. Dante wasted no time, popping the lid of the cylinder and dropping the thick liquid onto his skin.
It seemed to come alive as it touched him, crawling slowly up his arm and over his torso, down his abdomen and over his face. He was quickly sheathed in a grey carapace, molded perfectly to his features. And in a heartbeat, it submerged under his skin, leaving no trace of its existence in its wake.
“GIACA systems online. Marrying complete. Bonding rendered permanent,” Aaliyah said, reading from the monitor of the computer by his bed. He stretched and leaned back, flexing his powerful muscles against the many bandages.
"When do I get my first assignment, ma’am?" he said, referring to her with joking sarcasm, calling up the GIACA again and again. She understood his meaning perfectly.
"You're still my charge, Dante, and I’m still responsible for you. From here until you beat me in the two Trials, you’re a runner, with autonomy and ability to roam, but also my son."
His smile faltered, disappointment flickering across his face. But then he grinned again, and jumped clear out of bed.
"As if I’d challenge the Demon of the Sahara. Lead me on then, mother," he said, making a comical bow in her direction.
"Hopefully that won't be necessary today. Go down to the mess hall, Dante. Breakfast was stalled for you, and we're all hungry," Jac’s voice said from the doorway, wherein he had suddenly materialized.
Dante nodded and rushed out the door with all a child's excitement, his footsteps echoing down the long hall. Jac watched him go, his smile fond, almost fatherly. But when he looked back to his sister, it was replaced with an icy glare. He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a hand and spoke.
"There's nothing more to discuss. I’ll teach him the new laws, but I’ll also teach him the old ways. My ways. He is mine to instruct, and you have no say in it." She stood up.
"But let's forget about that now and celebrate. It's a big day for Dante, and we shouldn't let anything get in the way."
He was impassive for a second more, then smiled and nodded. She left for the mess hall, and did not notice the expression of dark worry on his face. He knew that Dante was special, potentially one of the best runners the city had ever seen; there could be no doubt about it. Just what he would mean to the rest of them was a matter Jac could not divine.
He stood in that doorway for a long time, thinking and planning for the future.