"Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!"
~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
[Note: These are the last words of Roman dictator and general, Julius Caesar, because of betrayal by his companion Marcus Brutus.]
“Can we take a break now?” whined Medea.
Proxima huffed a little at the comment, but stopped and sat on the ground covered with browning leaves. The others followed in suit, and took their water-skins out of their packs, their parched lips taking scant sips. The forest rang with the sounds of wildlife – birds and crickets chirping in unison, whilst the distant sounds of croaking toads and frogs punctuated the oddly peaceful song. A river could be heard burbling in the distance somewhere. The forest floor was rank with the smell of decomposition, mingled with the strange sweetness of the fertile soil and the fresh scent given out by the greenery. The forest was bathed in a green light, the sun’s rays unable to trespass the dense canopy of leaves.
Friend, yet foe. Protective, yet oppressive.
Proxima looked up, trying to spy a gap in the fortification of leaves above.
Roderigo had said that this was a physical barrier between the Human Empire and Methum. He’d said the Dyonuxiots didn’t dare build a wall through it, because the forest was so twisted, so tangled, so Laebnisos [as the forest became known to the Methists], that anyone who entered could never find a way out. But Roderigo had explained that he and Mose Ruict had used this route into Methum to seek refuge. They’d left marks and pointers on certain trees so that they would know their way back if the Methists did not welcome them. The markers were all winded, and often caused the group to walk about in circles, but Roderigo [who was leading them alongside Proxima] didn’t dare try to ignore the markings. He knew that as soon as he ignored them, the forest would tangle them in its vast, chaotic vines.
Proxima wondered how long it had been, that they were wandering around in the Laebnisos Forest. It must have been a week, at the least. She shook her head, and then wiped her perspired face with the back of her hand.
“Are we gonna walk around in this hellhole for the rest of our lives, or something?” asked Federico, disturbing the calm forest music. All the members of the team were dripping with perspiration, the necklines and armpits of their garbs drenched.
Proxima looked at him; eyes narrowed, but didn’t say anything.
“You got a better idea, Meathead?” retorted Roderigo. He refused to call Federico ‘Glint’.
“We go back and beat the crap out of that smart-arse Indian,” said Federico, punching a fist in the air, “At least we won’t die from it.”
“There’s not going to be a going back.”
Roderigo and Federico watched as Proxima stood up, and looked away from them both.
“You keep bullshitting your way through this mission, and we’ll never get anything done,” she continued, “This is the way we’re going. We’re not going back. Not until we’re done. Final.”
“I’m sorry, Lady Foxface,” said Federico, “You might be in charge, but it’s your blooming guardian we’re here for. If any one of us wants to leave the mission, then I guess we can.”
Proxima ignored the fact that Federico fought to join in with the mission, and replied by saying, “Then leave.”
Federico glared at Proxima, then sucked in his cheeks and said nothing.
Medea shrieked a laugh, “What? Afraid of a few trees, eh, Glint?”
Proxima gave Medea a side glance, “Aren’t we all?” she said monotonously.
Medea raised her brows, but also didn’t reply.
Feeling no satisfaction, Proxima sighed – frustrated and marginally indignant – and was about to ask Roderigo if they should wade further into the forest or camp here for the night. It was hard to tell the time when it was relatively dark almost always. Proxima rubbed her collarbone. Under the rope-necklace that Cato had given her, she touched the Imocs that hung on a silver chain – resting snuggly in the hollow of her collarbone.
The scary little machine would not stop moving unless it found Proxima’s skin. She’d tried packing it in her bag, putting it in her pocket, even tying it into her hair. But it always found a way out, defying gravity, clinging to the first piece of skin it touched. She’d found a silver chain lying in the grass as they trekked and decided to use it – the Imocs seemed content with it, anyhow.
But then there was a rustle as a black lump of feathers broke through the canopy, fast as a speeding bullet, and landed with a crash onto the forest floor sending dead leaves flying in all directions. It stood on the clear patch, a spotlight shining on it, fluttering its wings a moment and then folding them.
The bird had made the life of the forest die in an instant. No song. No movement. No speech. Everyone stared at the bird, wide-eyed, sensing danger. It was a black bird – too small to be a crow, and too large to be a raven – the jet black feathers tipped with red along the wings and the rudder. It had beady, evil-looking eyes, sharp talons, and a hooked beak that glinted in the sunlight. It scratched the ground for moment, and then turned its head from side to side. It had a synthetic, man-made air about it.
It stopped and stared at Proxima. A eerie, Human stare. The bird had purpose, it had meaning. The creature hopped towards her, snapping its beak – open and close. Proxima didn’t move. The black bird flew into her lap and searched her neckline. Federico and Medea looked at each other, wondering If they should do something. Roderigo did nothing. The strange bird pulled away the Pashmina scarf Proxima wore around her neck, and pecked at her collar-bone. There in the crevice of the bone, the Imocs lay still, where it had found comfort.
The bird stared for a moment and then nodded. It perched itself on Proxima’s arm, digging its talons in, and spat something into her hand. It flew away as fast as it had come. Proxima blinked. It took her a moment to realise that the bird had disappeared and everyone was waiting for her. She looked down at the object in her hand. A cyndrical casket, covered in slimy bird spittle, lay there. Suddenly, she realised what the bird was. She knew what the casket was.
“Set up camp,” she said to the others.
Sheldon had finally sent them his message.
* * * * *
After the team had set up camp, Proxima sat by the crackling fire, motionless. She hadn’t opened the casket yet, or told the others about it for that matter. She’d been grateful for the fact that none of them asked any questions. But now, as the camouflaged sleeping-sacks hung in the trees and a freshly hunted meal of skinned squirrels roasted over the open fire, she knew that her time was running out and soon she’d have to explain. Soon they’d have to discover their first allocated target. It didn’t take long for the bullet to be fired.
“So…” said Federico, “The freaky bird? What did it spit into your hand, Vixen?”
Proxima regarded him from the other side of the fire, but said nothing.
“Look, I know that having a bird spit at you can be traumatising,” he continued, “But something tells me it had a purpose. We’ve been stalling for long enough. What was it?”
“Will you lay off?” intervened Roderigo.
“I’m sorry, Romeo,” jeered Federico, “I’m just wondering why the hell a bird was communicating with our leader,” he gave Proxima a mocking look of reverence, “I didn’t mean to be offensive, but – you know how things are – birds don’t talk and nod at people. Unless Her Majesty the Queen Proxima is part bird also.”
Roderigo was about to retort, when Proxima raised a hand to silence him. And she remained silent also.
“Well?” said Federico.
“I know you ain’t selectively mute, Vixen. Medea’s the only retard around here,” he pressed on.
Medea, taking no offence, looked from Proxima to Federico. Proxima still said nothing.
Federico said snarled, “What? Are you waiting for me to ask nicely? Because you know it’s never going to get to that.”
Roderigo was about to intervene again, but Proxima raised her hand once more.
“Answer the bloody question, damn you!”
“No,” said Proxima.
“You don’t deserve to know.”
“Of course I do. I’m on this mission too.”
Proxima ignored the remark, “You have no right to know.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are a fool, Federico,” said Proxima, and she didn’t mean it as an offence, “If anyone’s going to die on this mission, it’s going to be you.”
A shiver ran down Federico’s spine, but he soldiered on hotly, “Are you gonna be the end of me?” he laughed, “Go on, try it. You might be able to kill me, Vixen, but not without me taking you down too.”
“I’m not picking a fight. I’m telling you that if you don’t wisen-up sometime soon, someone – something – will kill you. Think on that. Make sure you do. I didn’t bring you here to kill you.”
“Then why did you bring me here?”
Proxima shrugged, “You asked for it, remember?”
And – like Federico always does when a cat catches him by the tongue – he sucked in his cheeks and was silenced.
“We’ll open the message after we eat,” Proxima said, pointing at the roast, “Our meal is done.”
“Message?” said Medea innocently.
“Not another word!” Proxima snapped.
After they’d finished eating, Proxima buried the leftovers of her meal in the dark, fertile forest earth; and then washed her hands with the water from her water-skin. After drying her hands, she turned the Imocs to its scanning setting – as Sheldon had showed her – and took his message out of the casket the bird had left. It said:
“Scan code outside of Escarr. Will see you then. Oh, and feed Trevor.”
Proxima shook her head in distaste.
What a stupid name for a bird, she thought.
And scanned the code printed on the other side. Now that the code was scanned, their encampment was bathed blue with the light of the tiny Imocs. For a while, a 3D holographic sand-timer hovered over the campfire, turning over at regular intervals. Loading. Proxima counted four minutes and ten seconds in her head, before the Twelve appeared. Though the whole scene was blue, the image was 3D – as though the team were sitting with the Twelve back in their office at the Decagon.
“Greetings, Proxima,” said Sheldon, “I see you have all managed to survive thus far.”
It was meant to be a joke. Nobody laughed.
Sheldon cleared his throat, and continued, “Not in the laughing mood?”
“Shel-don,” said Proxima, through clenched teeth, “Cut to the chase!”
“Oh, temper, temper, Proxima,” Sheldon put his hands together and leaned back in his seat, “Patience is a virtue.”
“You,” said Proxima, “are a man that knows nothing of Virtue – do not take her name in vain.”
“Perhaps we should have supplied you all with pills for menstrual cramps,” Sheldon commented, “Though; I didn’t see a need for it – none of you have cycles anymore.”
Proxima’s fist clenched around the Imocs, and she could feel the tiny machine straining under the pressure. The image began to flicker.
“Proxima,” said Sheldon slowly, “The Imocs is your only connection to us – excluding Trevor, of course. Destroy the Imocs, and you may well destroy your hopes of saving your precious Cato.”
Proxima let the Imocs go reluctantly. To her surprise, it fell to the floor before slowly rolling towards her once again.
“Excellent,” said Sheldon, “Now that we have the niceties out of the way, let us explore the meat of the matter: your first target.”
All Proxima’s reproach for Sheldon was pushed away, and she began to pay him more attention.
“M.O.s, as we have said before, you have a total of seven assassination targets. Therefore, do not expect your first to be an easy one. He is, perhaps, the most formidable of them all.”
Proxima’s heart was pounding against her ribs, the anticipation and suspense killing her.
The image of the Twelve faded, and another image flickered onto the forest floor: A mountainous range, spinning three-sixty.
“Your target,” said Sheldon, “will be located in a valley, within the mountainous range named the Deoroc. There you will find separate military buildings, the most important being the Capital Barracks.”
The image zoomed in, and – still rotating – displayed the complex. A tall wall was built around the encampment, watch-towers placed at regular intervals. Inside the walls were about a dozen elongated buildings, the most prominent being the farthest from the entrance. Proxima supposed that was the Capital Barracks. She looked over at Roderigo. He wore an uneasy, tense expression: expecting the worst.
He knows, thought Proxima.
“The image you see here,” said Sheldon’s voice, “is the military complex of the Fyddin – the Methist army.”
“Beware: Not only are the mountains treacherous and incredibly cold, but the encampment is thought to be impregnable. The emblem of the Fyddin – as you should know – is a blue eight-pointed star with a red circle in its centre. The Fyddin uniform is blue, however your target’s uniform is a distinguishable navy.”
At this point, Roderigo cut in, “Holmes, you can’t be bloomin’ serious!” he said, smacking his forehead, “There’s no way you could possibly ask us to kill–”
“Jier Rustin,” said Sheldon, “General of the Fyddin, and – let me remind you, Proxima – the Dyonuxiot who led the most recent attacks on the Gateway.”
The image of a man appeared. He had large hands and feet. He wore navy uniform, the symbol of the Fyddin sewn onto his breast. A rapier hung at his side, daggers sheathed in his cuffs, and a rifle was strapped to his back. His hair was closely-cropped, and he had small eyes, but dark brows furrowed in scrutiny. The lower half of his face was hidden behind a black veil. Proxima took in the visible features of his face. Even though it was just an image, only a likeness, cold sweat ran down Proxima’s back.
A man of such high caliber… what chance did she have of killing him?
Proxima turned to Sheldon, “Is there anything else we need to know?”
“It’s all I have,” said Sheldon. He looked around the table, “Has anyone else got anything to add?”
Legate Cornelius leaned forward, “I have some information, but I do not know of its authenticity.”
Proxima exchanged another glance with Roderigo. He met her gaze, and his eyes glimmered with resent and hatred. Perhaps he really was considering defecting to the Methists – and who could blame him?
“Go on,” said Proxima, her gaze not leaving Roderigo’s.
“New recruits are being gathered at the end of this month,” said the Legate, “There will be what Rustin calls a ‘Disciplinary Session’. This session is conducted so that Rustin knows each and every one of his soldiers; and it’s a way of cleansing the Fyddin of weeds and traitors. If you can breach the walls, presenting yourself as a new recruit would be your best option. It would be the best way of getting close to Rustin, and, possibly, alone.”
“You mean the only way,” commented Proxima, “What other options do we have, Legate?”
“Is that it?” said Proxima evenly.
“Then I’ll contact you when Rustin is dead,” she continued, “If you don’t get a message from me by the end of this month – don’t expect any of us to come back. And don’t expect us to be dead either.”
With that, Proxima snapped the Imocs into standby. The image disappeared immediately.
She gazed up at the sky, “Sleep,” she said.
The rest of the team looked about themselves nervously.
“I never should have brought any of you,” Proxima continued, “Truth is: I can’t guarantee anything. You might die here. You might never see your homes. You might never see your guardians. Not Claudia, not Viola,” she swallowed a sob, “not Cato. So sleep, and sleep well,” she looked at each of their faces, taking in all the major and minor details.
“This story is not going to have a happy ending.”