Previously: <Prologue> <Chapter 1> <Chapter 2> <Chapter 3>
Carsius paced the floor of the deserted Marketplace. The scrounging trip had already taken far longer than necessary. They had found mattresses and various pieces of furniture to make the sparse area more livable, but food was a bit more difficult to stockpile. Only Atis, Scander, and Renata had the confidence to gather food from the stalls, while Barmier and Gorrmunsa went along as lookouts.
Carsius picked up a discarded contraption, marveling at how far from the established “normality” the people had come. But there were still a few fingers to pry loose from the planet, in order for them to be truly free of the Elitinati. Carsius let his mind wander, thinking of all the operatives just ripe for training; if this method worked, the Black Hand could essentially rid the universe of the Elitinati influence—or at least dramatically reduce the threat.
A soft beeping interrupted his plotting. Carsius immediately turned to the workroom entrance that served as their front door. A red light blinked above it. That meant someone was within minutes of breaching the perimeter of the factory walls. Carsius moved to the ramshackle "command center" and flicked a switch. The digital monitor before him lit up, and he could see five figures making their way through the factory grounds. That would be the foraging team, but why were they moving so fast? Carsius frowned as three more figures appeared on the monitor, not too far behind the team. Soldiers! Instead of following the highly irregular zig-zag path of their quarry, the soldiers plowed straight ahead, and Carsius saw them stop abruptly. He couldn't make out just what happened on the crudely-constructed monitor, but the three forms did not move at all.
Another alarm sounded, signaling that the outer door had opened. Twenty seconds later, Barmier, Gorrmunsa, Renata, Atis, and finally Scander poured through the doorway.
"Whoo!" Scander whooped, "That was a close one! I nearly thought we'd been caught for sure!" He punched Atis on the shoulder, "Neat traps, brother! Man, that was incredible!"
Atis' eyes danced as he looked toward Carsius. "Did the alert system work all right?"
Carsius pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "It functioned as well as it could, given the circumstances we had to go through to invent it."
Renata finished turning the last of the scrounged supplies over to Deej. She glanced at the monitor, with the immobilized soldiers.
"Those poor men!" she cried. "What happened, did it kill them, Atis?"
He barely looked in her direction as he splashed water from the makeshift sink on his face and toweled off.
"Nah, I think that was just a paralyzing snare. They should be fine in a day or two."
"A day or two!" Carsius roared, "Do you realize what a security risk that is? Three bodies in plain view of the street?"
"Look at the bright side," Atis returned hotly, "If the trap does kill them, I have a programmed incineration protocol running through the wires they're trapped in. The bodies will be ash before long!"
Carsius was so furious that he did not say a word.
Scander greeted Sverana and glanced to where Laurel huddled in a corner, rocking back and forth and staring keenly at the ground.
"Is she okay?" he asked Augustus.
The operative sighed, "It's hard to tell any more. Who knows what kind of demons Laurel has swimming in her head that she cannot be rid of, or else this whole mission would fail."
"Council!" Carsius barked.
Scander glanced at Augustus. "Should we bring her over?"
Augustus shook his head gravely. "Carsius and I decided she was too much of a security risk. All that she can manage to understand at this point is the drive to fight the mother mind. That's all we need her for. The less she knows about our plans, the less the Elitinati can pull from her." He led the young boy toward the others, away from Laurel.
"All right," Carsius cleared his throat, "I think you all know the added challenge we will face in trying to continue this mission."
The others exchanged glances before Atis replied with the obvious answer, “The soldiers.”
Carsius nodded. "The snares and alarms and defense systems constructed by Atis and Barmier keep us safe here, but—" he paused and glanced at the burly warrior.
"But the blasted cadets are on us as soon as we set foot outside!" Barmier finished.
Scander raised his hand, "Sir," he said when acknowledged, "I don't mind being a scrounger. I can move fast and fit into tight places, and Sverana provides diversion when I need it."
"Why can't we just hole up in here till it all blows over?" Augustus suggested.
"Fool!" Gorrmunsa spat, leaping onto his chair in a squatting position. "It is not a matter of waiting for the current storm to subside. This is a war of our own making, and it has only just started!"
Augustus raised his hands and shied away from the Kytarr. "Whoa, okay, fine; don't get your dander up!"
Carsius sighed, "Gorrmunsa speaks true. We started this thing, and we must see it through. Scander," he nodded toward the young man, "I appreciate your dedication to the cause, but unfortunately, we can't send just anybody to do what needs to be done." He glanced toward the huddled, muttering figure, and everyone caught his meaning.
"And how do you expect to get Laurel out there, may I ask?" Atis queried. "The place is crawling with soldiers."
"Where did all the soldiers come from, anyway?" Scander interposed. "It's like they doubled or tripled in number overnight."
Carsius shrugged. "I don't know. Perhaps you can spy on the garrison, Scander, and find out why there are suddenly so many. The rest of us must figure out how to get Laurel past them." He turned to Atis, "Were the soldiers wearing wyrts?"
Atis shrugged, "Well, yeah, but this place is invisible to them, isn't it?"
Carsius frowned, "And yet somehow you were not. Perhaps because the soldiers themselves—not the wyrts—saw you and reported the theft. That means that even though at first no one could see us because they did not expect us, now they can—and out of loyalty to the Elitinati, they will report us."
Barmier huffed, "Can't we just glue wyrts to our clothing and act like we are behaving under their influence?"
Augustus chuckled, "Not if what we're doing breaks some kind of law! No Eillumaeian with a wyrt would do that. Besides, that's half our number recognized by the network. No doubt they are watching this area very closely to see who comes out without a wyrt."
An alarm bleeped, and Atis moved to check the monitor.
"Aw, snazzlefritz!" he swore.
"What is it?" Carsius asked.
"Don't look now," the young Lumminean said, "But I think the government has just put a bounty on our heads."
Sure enough, the announcement proclaimed a generous reward for any sighting of any type of subversive activity. A map of the city showed that the notice was going up all over the city.
"Great, now we'll have people turning in their own neighbors for money, to say nothing of how quickly they'll rat on us for what we're doing!" Renata pointed out.
"What can we do, then?" Augustus asked, glancing over at the miserable young Elf, who had left off muttering and was now tracing designs in the dirt. "We can't just send her out alone."
"Which one of us do you want her to suddenly turn and report when she is overcome by the influence of the wyrts?" Augustus retorted.
"The truth will set you free!" cried a voice.
The seven men looked at Renata, who shook her head. They turned to Laurel. She had stood, and was now wobbling over to them with a wild gleam in her eye. "The Truth is my shield and protector. The one who comes from Truth will be my guide."
Atis snorted, "Aren't we all on the side of truth?" he muttered to Carsius.
"Maybe," the commander replied, but she said 'comes from Truth.' It must be the name of another Syndicate like ours." He caught Laurel's roving attention. "Fair maiden," he addressed her, "Who is it that comes from Truth?"
Laurel seemed incapable of looking at them directly. "Ra'dith," she intoned.
The table erupted.
"Absolutely not! Out of the question!"
"She cannot be trusted!"
"But none of us can go with Laurel without being reported, and we can't just send her out on her own. She may lose her sanity entirely."
"Cursed black imp slipped my grasp!"
"But Laurel said she came from Truth!"
"Scander, just because someone names their faction Truth doesn't make someone trustworthy or their cause a noble one."
"EVERYBODY QUIET!" Carsius roared. Once he had their attention, he said, "We will think on that matter a bit more before deciding anything. For now, we still have some planning to do. So, to move on," Carsius continued, "Deej and I have agreed that though the citizens of Eillumaeia are free to reason for themselves, to think for themselves, and to accept each other—but according to the laws of their government (presided over by the Elitinati, of course), they are not free to act upon these beliefs."
"But shouldn't the legal professionals and judicial authorities have the same sentiments of freedom?" Atis objected.
Augustus shook his head, "Not as long as the law stands. These people are hard-wired to uphold the law at any cost, giving no thought to whether or not it is just. All the Elitinati had to do was issue their own set of laws, and presto! Instant subjugation."
"Aw, heck!" Atis replied, "We don't need Laurel to bring down the law. We can just establish a revolt, and do it ourselves!"
Carsius glared at the lackadaisical young man. "That isn't the point, remember? An idea can only be replaced by another idea if these people would be truly free."
"So what combats the law without promoting anarchy?" Gorrmunsa asked curiously.
Carsius smiled. "That is what I want you to think over this evening. We'll break for supper and sleep for now, and reconvene tomorrow morning. Is that clear?"
"All right," Carsius said, "Deej and Renata, you'll be in charge of the food, and the rest help where you can. Meeting adjourned!"
As darkness collected around them, everyone thought furiously at what kind of attitude or thought process would eliminate the need for stringent laws.
Meanwhile, Laurel curled miserably on the fluffy cushion that served her for a bed. Renata had brought her a bowl of soup, but that was her only interaction with them, after trying to beg them to allow Ra'dith to protect her. She had avoided their faces on purpose, knowing that the concentration of serum inside her turned her into a living wyrt. The last thing she wanted was to betray her friends—even if it meant being shunned by them. Laurel closed her eyes and drifted into troubled psychedelic dreams.