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The world seemed to start fresh the next morning. The air that filled her lungs with each breath was incredibly satiating, as though a fine mist was moisturizing it. It could be the results of last night's rain, or her newfound elation could be deceiving her into enjoying such minute details of life more.

She managed to feel hopeful in that exact moment; this was all she had ever aspired to her whole life. Even the tightness that lingered deep in the core of her head and the tingly, burn-like sensation pulsating from the slash across her back could be easily ignored.

As the gates creaked and rattled to a close behind her, she couldn't help but allow the unfounded sense that they sealed all her pain and troubles behind her. She might've enjoyed it more if she had known how differently she'd feel in a few short hours.

Zileca emerged from the corner of her vision, not entirely ruining her good mood but certainly not enhancing it. Avaria didn't turn to look at her, instead keeping her eyes fixed on the buildings in the distance, where true Chorlak were destined to live.

"How does it feel?"

Avaria turned her head to the woman as she spoke, analyzing her silently. She looked just as pristine as she had the day before, a warm, welcoming smile enhancing her well-structured features. Avaria couldn't decipher whether the kind display was genuine or not, and that was more unnerving than an obviously plastered expression could ever be. She was aware that she'd waited too long to answer, but Zileca looked unaffected by the unnatural pause.

"It feels good," she finally stated, "Really good."

Despite her critical deliberations, Avaria couldn't help the slight half-smile that pulled at the corner of her lip, but she resisted the full grin she felt. Her distaste for Zileca was too pronounced to risk the possibility of the woman mistaking her glee for friendliness.

"Shall we?" Zileca asked rhetorically, fixing her eyes pointedly on a large black box that levitated a foot above the ground nearby.

The black carbon of the transport cube was polished to a gleam, no doubt reflecting the obsessive attention to detail expressed by its owner.

The Vice Overseer didn't wait for Avaria to answer, instead striding towards her vehicle with the proud gait of someone who expected to be obeyed.

Seams, which had previously been invisible to the naked eye, revealed themselves as the thin door snapped inward to make way for its master. It folded one way and then the other, stacking upon itself like a collapsible fan until it fully disappeared from sight. A couple of steps folded out helpfully from their place tucked under the cube, and Zileca ascended them like a queen approaching her throne.

Avaria did follow her, as she was expected to do, and quickly found herself in the most luxurious seat she had ever encountered. The plush, well-cushioned row of recliners that lined the back two-thirds of the cube were black, as was the rest of the interior except for a few ivory details. Worg had already been inside, so now she was positioned across from his sour face and to the left of Zileca. The woman sat very straight as though she could be photographed at any moment.

"We've entered the city ma'am." The driver turned from where he stood at the front of the cube, each hand fixed on a floating ivory steering ring.

"Inform me when we've arrived," Zileca ordered, her voice strong and stately as it always seemed to be.

"Where are we going?" Avaria didn't care that much about the answer, content simply to be in the main portion of Chorlak society, but she was somewhat curious.

"Don't ask questions," Worg snapped grouchily.

Zileca didn't correct her subversive's rudeness or offer any more information. Avaria quirked an eyebrow in a nonchalant, halfhearted protest of his unwarranted outburst before contenting herself with gazing at the tall hexagonal structures that rushed past the windows. She was glad that the walls of the transport cube had large squares that were transparent from the inside. Otherwise, she wouldn't have known that she was much farther into the city than she'd ever been before.

The cube finally glided to a smooth halt in front of a particularly large building. Flimsy posts jutted out around it at odd angles, and a black rope was strung between them as though the building were under construction. It immediately struck Avaria as odd, because despite it being nearly midday, there wasn't a worker in sight.

As she descended from the cube behind Zileca, another observation brought a puzzled crinkle to her brows. Chrome-plated bars leaned in stacks against the outer walls, and scattered across the building's surface were large square openings where the bars once resided.

"This is the old prison?" Avaria doubted it could be anything else, but she wanted someone to confirm her suspicion.

Zileca nodded curtly.

"Now it is the place from which I operate." She turned her head to look at Avaria as she offered her vague answer, and she must have recognized the suspicion in the younger Chorlak's face because she continued. "It will all make sense soon."

Avaria was almost certain now that something underhanded was happening right in front of her, yet just beyond her view. Worg went ahead of them to untie a section of rope in front of the door. The building was old, and up-close Avaria could see that it was no longer the shiny black color characteristic of Chorlak structures, but rather a dark, muted gray. Its age made sense, of course, the Chrolak had abandoned the practice of taking prisoners more than a hundred years ago.

The dullness of disappointment gathered in her chest, sensing that her reservations about the Vice Overseer would soon find merit. Her lips drew into a dissatisfied line as she followed Zileca inside. There was nothing else she could do.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wondered if she should be concerned about dying in this building. Her hopes, as limited as they had been, were so thoroughly dashed at the moment that she wasn't entirely offended by the possibility. However, realistically it seemed unlikely that the woman would go to such lengths to select Avaria and then promptly execute her.

Like the outside of the building, the interior didn't exactly look rundown, but everything looked dull and faded like old coins. They entered the spacious elevator on the back side of the room in single file, and Worg selected the highest of many buttons to take them to the top floor.

As the elevator lurched to life, Avaria observed that both Zileca and Worg held themselves even straighter, chests puffed up and shoulders back as if they also were uncomfortable with whatever awaited them when the doors opened again.

Avaria's brow furrowed in mild concern, but she subconsciously mirrored their stance, clasping her hands in front of her in the same formal way they were. It was an awkwardly long ascent, but the unnatural silence didn't bother her, and she took the opportunity to look for clues in her superior's face.

Zileca didn't look afraid, but her features were arranged rather firmly, despite the civil, closed-mouth smile just slightly tilting her lips. It certainly seemed like they meant to intimidate whatever they were about to encounter.

Avaria abandoned her efforts to glean any more information and instead focused her gaze on the double doors before her, lightly tapping her fingers across the back of her other hand impatiently. At last, they slowed to a rather violent halt, and mechanisms within the door began to whir, promising to soon reveal whatever Zileca had neglected to tell her.

The top floor was revealed inch by inch through the widening slot between the doors. Nothing looked unusual enough to warrant all the fuss. She saw a big, well-decorated hall, the edges of a few reclining chairs positioned about- then her muscles went so slack that she couldn't tell whether or not she was still standing.

Three massive creatures loomed in one of the corners, the sea of knots across their dark gray skin almost like a layer of smooth pebbles. Their deep red eyes locked onto her piercingly, their hairless heads tilting back and forth in quick, snappy motions. They were assessing her.

"Growloc." The word slipped through her lips, voice barely above a whisper, long before she realized it was forming on her tongue.

Zileca and Worg crossed her vision one after the other as they exited the elevator, their posture on guard but clearly not as astounded as she was. Her teeth clanked audibly, or at least it was audible to her own ears, as she reigned in her wayward wits.

A couple of lengthy strides, each exuding more confidence than she felt, brought her out of the elevator to confront the unbelievable scene before her.

"How? No," she paused to restructure her accusation as her shell-shocked brain supplied a better choice of wording, "Why? Why would you ever bring our only formidable enemy to the exact coordinates of our homeworld?" She whipped her head around to face Zileca, any appearances of respect for her wholly abandoned and the whistly aspect of the Chorlak language in her voice becoming sharp and gravelly.

Of course, she had never seen a Growloc face to face before; she wasn't a warrior, so she'd never battled one. But she was far from ignorant about them. Even the Marred heard about it every time the Growloc destroyed one of the planets that the Chorlak controlled.

The Chorlak and Growloc had battled each other ruthlessly for as long as anyone knew. The two races were the most powerful in their quadrant of the Galaxy, and both were eager to quash the other, sealing their prowess over the weaker planets scattered about.

Only one thing stopped one species from destroying the other's homeworld, and it was a very simple reason. Neither knew the location of the other's planet. At least, not until now.

"The situation has changed."

Avaria wondered if that smile really was somehow permanently attached to Zileca's face as it had yet to show signs of wavering.

"Oh, did it?" She couldn't stop the sarcasm in her voice if she tried.

Her thumbs rubbed against her slick fingertips in an attempt to manage her hostility. The gesture failed to soothe her, so she settled on folding her arms over her chest to await a better explanation.

The Growloc couldn't speak the Chorlak tongue, their average-length teeth prohibited their mouths from forming the sounds, but evidently, these particular ones could understand it.

"Hear the whole story before you commit to your aggression."

Avaria's glare returned at once to the Growloc, whose posture indicated that he led the other two as he approached. The standard galactic language he spoke in flowed from his lips fluently, although layered with a tone that resembled stones crunching. He had the audacity to look condescending, or at least that was how she interpreted his nearly stationary facial features. It was a bit hard to tell. After properly looking at him, she noticed that he didn't have ears, only a several inch slot down either side of his head where they should be. She'd always known this about the Growloc, but seeing it in person, she realized that the verbal descriptions of their appearance didn't do their unnerving qualities justice.

Her brows furrowed even deeper, nearly morphing into one as her agitation mounted. She didn't respond and instead returned her piercing gaze to Zileca.

"Let's all take a seat," the woman said cordially.

Avaria pursed her lips as a sharp huff shot from her nostrils, but she consented, letting her arms swing down to her sides as she turned back around, only to stop in her tracks upon realizing how close the Growloc had gotten when she wasn't looking. The creatures seemed to dwarf all else with their sheer size. It had never before occurred to Avaria that she was short, at five foot, two inches she was a perfectly average Chorlak height. However, as she craned her neck at an almost uncomfortable angle to stare defiantly into eyes at least two feet above her own, she was certainly well aware of the possibility.

The room they stood in boasted an unusually tall ceiling, likely for dramatic effect. The Growloc could stand in this room comfortably, but if Avaria's sense of humor could be heard through her fury, she would likely imagine that watching a Growloc contort their imposing figures enough to pass through short Chorlak doors would be a spectacle worth watching.

She didn't cower from the towering glare that met her own and passed by him with an unnecessary shove, a gesture she would no doubt deem childish in hindsight.

She seated herself in a chair on the left side of the room's long table, and Zileca and Worg sat to her left and right. The Growloc sat on the other side, the physical barrier between them somehow instilling the slightest sense of security.

"I'll be brief."

Avaria turned her critical eyes upon the woman as she spoke.

"Together, the Chorlak and Growloc could rule our entire quadrant, and perhaps even some of the neighboring ones without any significant resistance." Zileca's personable facade receded for a moment as she leaned forward slightly, scrutinizing Avaria's reaction.

She didn't respond to the woman's words, but her aggressively wrinkled forehead loosened a bit into consideration. She supposed her initial reaction silenced her ability to logic. Otherwise, she would have surely recognized this reasonable explanation right away. Still, it felt wrong, and she couldn't shake the feeling that she was still missing key pieces crucial to fully judging the situation.

Despite whatever arrangement Zileca had come to with the Growloc, as Avaria sat beside the other two Chorlak, she sensed an 'us versus them' sort of tension in the air. Then again, she supposed centuries of animosity couldn't be dissolved with any sense of urgency.

"Okay," she deadpanned, her demeanor firmly settling into suspicious curiosity. "What does that have to do with me?"

Zileca leaned back in her chair, forming a fist with the hand that rested on the table before fidgeting a thumb against her closed fingers. It was the most discomfort Avaria had seen the woman express so far, and she felt her eyelids tense together just slightly as her skepticism burst to life.

"The Oversight decided on this, right? Why such secrecy?"

Avaria searched for confirmation in the faces of the room's other occupants, but even the Growloc seemed somewhat uncomfortable, as though they'd been caught in a lie.

"They don't know about this?" A choppy, sarcastic laugh left her lips as her suspicions were validated by the group she now realized were some sort of rebels.

She pinched the bridge of her nose tightly when her head chose that moment to remind her it was still in pain with a few sharp pulses that shot all the way down her spine.

"Well? Someone just be an adult and spit it out. I truly can't wait to hear it."

"The High Overseer is closed-minded, too old fashioned to see the tactical advantage inches from his grasp." Zileca now held herself very tall in her seat, as if her dominant pose would silence any protests to her words.

Avaria had no intention to offer any resistance, the decision was clearly already made, but she was increasingly irritated that Zileca had so thoroughly uprooted her life and still hadn't disclosed why.

A passive-aggressive smirk pulled at her lip, and she leaned forward tensely, no longer respecting her superior enough to yield to her authority.

"Why," she paused to narrow her eyes just enough to convey her well-channeled impatience, "am. I. Here?"

Zileca leaned forward too, unmoved by Avaria's impatience, and now they were locked into a harsh stare down.

"For the sake of the Chorlak people, I need to become the High Overseer. Three days from now, High Overseer Tizomi will be at the Council Tower in sector 328." Her icy glare somehow became even more intense, and the base of Avaria's spine prickled in warning. "You will intercept him there, and you will assassinate him."

 

 

 

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Submitted: April 17, 2021

© Copyright 2021 M.G.Hopkins. All rights reserved.

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