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Avaria’s bowl was now empty, so she stood without ever saying a word to her co-conspirator, Korbak. She didn't go back for seconds. The machine divided the food exactly enough ways to allow each of them a portion, regardless of how small that portion would turn out to be. 

Even the Marred, sectioned off from the rest of their people, were engrained to their very core with one fundamental Chorlak principle. The effectiveness of their people as a whole must always be the top priority. Armed with this hive mentality, they overtook nearly any race they wished to with ease. 

If she took a second serving, someone would go hungry. They would be weakened, and weakening another Chorlak damaged the effectiveness of the Chorlak people, like breaking a cog in a machine. 

Of course, the Marred weren't a part of the machine; their lives took place on some lower plane of existence. They could all starve to death, and if anyone ever noticed, they wouldn't care. Regardless, they clung to this unit-oriented mentality with all their might. In some small way, they felt it allowed them to identify as Chorlak citizens.

A splash sounded as she deposited her bowl and stick into the water tub, a light dusting of droplets rising quickly to coat her arm. She paid them no mind as she carried herself purposefully down the hall. 

The facility was like a labyrinth, with enough turns, twists, and staircases to make some people dizzy. She was not one of those people, at least not anymore. She was an expert at navigating the sea of peeling paint and leaky ceilings; she had been winding her way through these same corridors since she was eight.

The suns' light finally cascaded across her skin, chasing away a bit of the drabness rooted in her core. The courtyard that sat in the middle of the compound was fairly small, but it was the largest open space in the entire facility. This is where she spent her whole day, from the meal until dusk, every day, never wavering. 

Despite knowing society would probably never permit her, no matter how much she excelled, the ghost of long dwindled motivation was just enough to keep her training more vigorously than anyone else. Besides, she didn't know what would keep her sane if she didn't fill her days with enough exertion to drown her thoughts.

She took her training weapon of choice from its rack, a two-foot-long sword peppered with chinks and divots from too much use and too little maintenance. It was unlikely it had even been polished since the Ancients had used it hundreds of years ago.

She gripped the hilt of the weapon securely with both hands and held the blade in front of her face. Her eyes closed. She took a deep breath that felt like it expanded her whole body. Then her eyes flashed open as her sword traveled on the path of its first stroke, her lean body following the movement as naturally as if it was merely an extension of her arm. 

The second was no different, smooth, calculated, precise. Her movements flowed into one another, always changing but never ceasing, like a lethal dance. To any observer, it simply looked right, as though there were no other ways for a sword to be wielded and all who had done it before her had done something wrong. 

Throughout the day, she drilled every combat technique she knew and even sparred with some of her peers, taking care to pass on Korbak's message to a select few of them. She ended her training with the artillery simulator, a rather large contraption that allowed its user to imitate the operation of any long-range weaponry that the Chorlak possessed. 

The simulator itself hadn't seen a maintenance crew in perhaps hundreds of years, but fortunately, its weapon database was synced to the official Chorlak training simulators, keeping it up-to-date. She loaded the rifle simulator, as she usually did, dedicating the last hour of the day to perfecting her aim.

She preferred hand to hand combat, but among the Chorlak snipers were a must. They were a battle-oriented people, willing and ready to fight and conquer any other race that had the misfortune of crossing their path. Each Chorlak- except for the Marred- was a warrior, and it was expected for every warrior to have a working knowledge of guns, but those that could successfully hit a target from hundreds or thousands of yards away were held in particularly high regard. 

If she could ever overcome her genetic curse and fight alongside the rest of her people, she intended to be an expert markswoman. It was yet another way she could prove herself valuable to her kind if someone would ever give her a chance. 

The first sun slipped below the horizon, the second still providing the world with a hint of light. Training time was over.

 

*

 

Before the second sun was able to join the first, she had clothed herself in a hooded vest, secured a handkerchief about her branded wrist, and now stood leaning casually against the back wall of the Matron's quarters. At this point, it was a meaningless title for the room that could almost be described as large. 

According to legend, the Matron would watch the Marred, and upon finding someone they deemed worthy, arrange for them to audition their skills before the Oversight Board. 

The Oversight hadn't bothered to send a person to occupy the room in hundreds of years. Perhaps they never had and it was only constructed as a formality to begin with. Either way, it was poorly built and had long ago fallen into a state of disrepair so far beyond the rest of the facility that not even one of the Marred felt inclined to move into it. 

“The stench in here is astounding.” Gasmi's crisp, matter-of-fact voice interrupted the silence as she strode through the doorway. 

Avaria allowed a smirk to grace her lips but didn't otherwise respond. She had heard the woman voice the same complaint hundreds of times before. When Avaria had arrived at the facility as a traumatized seven-year-old, Gasmi, who was only about five years older, hadn't exactly taken care of her, but she had helped her learn to look out for herself and who to avoid if she knew what was good for her.

Korbak, who was about the same age as Gasmi, filed in moments later, every strand of his short white hair standing on end in an intentionally mussed sort of way. He was one of the ones Gasmi had advised her to stay away from on the grounds that he was 'most disagreeable.' Avaria had never known a time when the woman didn't use sophisticated words and thought it likely that her first utterance had consisted of at least two syllables. 

The woman's advice about Korbak was indeed founded, but Avaria was now highly skilled at managing those who were 'most disagreeable.' In truth, she found just about everyone unpleasant to be around, although some were worse than others. 

Soon, Tarr and Jabic joined them. They were a bit older than the others, perhaps somewhere in their thirties, but they were just as fit and agile as anyone else. Avaria waggled her fingers at Jabic teasingly, because, in lack of anyone with a decent sense of humor, her only hope of amusement was to agitate the grumps, so that was what she did. 

When she was younger, his tough exterior, coupled with his unusually large frame, brought her to near silence in his presence. As she got older, she learned that his interior was just as crusty and unfriendly as the facade he maintained, but she'd become immune to it. There wasn't much that bothered her anymore.

He barely glanced at her in response, both used to and unimpressed by her antics. She was sure he thought of her care-free persona as somewhat childish, but she couldn't imagine just how bleak life would be if she surrendered her personality to the level of severity at which he operated.

With all of the conspirators present, they pushed the bulky metal bed frame aside to reveal a hole in the concrete, eroded away after decades of subjection to the effects of a leaky ceiling. Her four older peers had discovered the breach and tunneled out through it not long before she arrived, but she found out about it quickly and insisted on being included. 

Avaria crawled into the tunnel first. That was the deal; if she were going to join them, she'd have to risk being sighted first. It wasn't a very high risk at all; Enforcer patrols never ventured as far from the city as the Marred facility. 

Two popular beliefs led to its never being guarded: first, society believed that it was inescapable, which was clearly an overly confident stance, and second, they thought that any Chorlak, even the Marred, had such fiercely loyal instincts that they wouldn't rebel against the Oversight. To some degree, they were right. There had never been anything that even resembled an uprising. 

On the other hand, the five of them were currently in the process of rebelling against the Oversight by leaving, so it could be that society had held a little too much optimism when they formed that belief. However, their unauthorized outing wasn't some grand display of rebellion so much as it was an expression of a basic, primitive need. Hunger tends to outrank most of a person's morals in the end.

The cold night air chilled her skin as she emerged from the tunnel, her eyes landing on the unignorable Ruins. 

“We're losing nighttime!” Her words were somewhere between a whistle and a speaking voice, perhaps even both at once, as they were pushed through her fangs to form the sounds that were characteristic of the Chorlak tongue.

After hoisting herself free from the tunnel, she took on a relaxed posture, arms folded over her chest as she waited for the others to join her. For some reason, the Ruins captured her attention tonight. There was no other time when the area was as haunting as it was at dusk when the final rays of sunlight illuminated the gas cloud lurking over that quarter of the planet, forbidding any Chorlak from ever daring to try and retake the wasteland. 

If the poison hadn't been so strongly attracted to its source, it would have easily covered the entire face of the planet, destroying the Ancient Chorlaks and bringing their people to extinction hundreds of years ago.

The eerie cloud seemed almost like a visualization of the strange feeling that was beginning to hang in the pit of her stomach, like something was happening or about to happen, and it felt like it would be something sinister. The unease didn't make any sense. Today had been no different than the last thousand days. She dismissed it as nerves; she was always unsettled when they left the facility. 

Her attention was pulled from her thoughts when a shaved head revealed itself from the mouth of the tunnel, and she reached out an arm to help Tarr the rest of the way into the open. He always struggled a bit to haul himself out because despite being built like a tank, at about four foot ten, he was even smaller than Chorlaks typically were. 

His short arms just couldn't get a good enough grip. Now standing firmly on his own two feet, he took a moment to give her a stoic nod of thanks before he vigorously scrubbed his hands over his garments, banishing the dirt that had collected there. He didn't much like to be dirty when he could keep from it.

Within minutes, the five of them were traveling their usual route around the facility, their dark hoods pulled low over their faces. No one spoke. There was no need to; their plan was the same every time. They had no way to know that tonight would go every way but according to plan.

 

 

 

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Submitted: March 18, 2021

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