“He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Cato hadn’t spoken much since the meeting with Legate Cornelius and Senator Sempronius, and he was still plenty mad.
How could they even think about sending Proxima out alone? he thought, No military training, barely an adult and [oh, yes] just recovered from psychological trauma! That idiot Emperor is going to pay for this!
Cato had stomped out of the Decagon without saying another word to the task-setters, and Proxima scurried out anxiously behind him. Cato wasn’t very… peaceful when he was in such a mood. As he left the Decagon, he had shoved past people, thrown them out of the way, and had even gone to the extent of kicking a Senate worker halfway down a corridor.
Proxima shook her head as they sat, once again, in their jeep and were speeding down the lanes, seemingly, in no particular direction at all. Cato was just driving – putting distance between himself and the Decagon. Proxima sat quietly, her head pressed against the window, watching the outside world pass by. She was about to fall asleep [because she didn’t know what else to do] when Cato suddenly hit the brakes. Proxima’s head thumped against the window loudly, whilst the seatbelt lashed against her ribs.
“Cato…?” she said, rubbing her head.
But when she looked in Cato’s direction, he had his face resting on the steering wheel and his head hidden beneath his arms. He was breathing heavily. Proxima chewed her lip, concerned for good measure, and thinking of a good way to break the ice. Nothing came to mind, so she just sat back, and waited for Cato to explode.
There was silence.
Cato shot up, and slammed his fist on the wheel – making the horn honk full-blast. He threw his head back, and rubbed his face. Sweat. Cato furrowed his brows and rubbed his eyes. Tears. He touched the lip he’d been biting down on so hard. Blood.
Sweat. Tears. Blood.
The companions from his past.
The reality of his present.
The reminders for his future.
The only things he could trust.
There was nothing else.
No, said the voice inside his head, There is something else.
Cato looked to the left of him and saw Proxima staring at him, mouth parted and eyes wide with too much shock to hide. Cato closed his eyes and sighed. He sighed because he was frustrated. He sighed because he was relieved. He sighed because he was worried. He sighed because there was something – someone – else. And no one would take her away from him – ever.
“Cato?” said Proxima softly.
“Proxima?” Cato replied, his voice cracking.
Proxima looked at him for a while – wondering what to say – and then decided, “You’re too old for this.”
Cato chuckled and rubbed his eyes, “Yeah. Yeah, maybe I am.”
“…You didn’t have to do that, you know, rejoin the Legion and everything. This isn’t your problem, Cato, it isn’t your mess.”
For a second, Proxima thought that Cato might get angry all over again, but he said, “Proxima… about twenty-eight years ago I had this… teacher. He was really harsh and militant and stuff. His motto was: ‘memento mori’ – ‘remember you must die’.”
“Bleak,” Proxima commented.
“But true, Proxima. It took me a while to understand what it meant,” Cato paused a moment, and then said, “We’re all going to die one day. Not a single one of us knows for sure which day it is, but what we certainly do know is that it will happen. Time is against us, Proxima, and the last thing we want to do is waste it.”
“Back when I joined the Legion… I thought my life was dedicated to serving my Empire, and freeing my people. Time passed – as it does – and I realized how cruel we Humans are. How ruthless. It was only a matter of time until an invading force came along and tried to destroy us. Maybe it’s Punishment from God or maybe it’s a Sign. I don’t know; all I knew was that I didn’t want to serve a corrupt Empire or a corrupt Emperor. What would he do, after all, if we did free Earth from the Dyonuxiot threat? Would everything just turn back to the way it was – brother killing brother on mere whim? For petty, materialistic things?”
“I never saw you as much of a philosopher.”
“My point is – my life didn’t have much of a purpose, Proxima. In a way, I just became a psychopathic killer – just killing a people who were supposed to be my assailants but I could never really decide because I didn’t consider the Empire to be my ally. But when they gave you to me, things… things changed.”
Proxima raised her eyebrows.
“You weren’t like the Emperor,” Cato continued, “or the Senators, or the legionaries, or even the common people. You were a scared little kid, sniffling and crying because you didn’t know where you were, whom you were with or where you were heading. You were innocent. So, before I died I wanted to make a difference to you. I wanted to make you a good person, even though I couldn’t quite make it there myself. But most of all I hoped this day would never come. The day when you’d fall prey to the Empire and have to serve it. With your blood. With your sweat. With your tears.” Cato closed his eyes for a moment, “But it has come, and I’m not going to let you face it on your own, like I had to all those years ago. It doesn’t matter whose mess it is, if you have to go out there,” Cato gestured to the outside world, “then so do I.”
“…I think you're a good person,” said Proxima softly.
Cato gave a sad smile, “You’ve only known me for fourteen years, Proxima,” he said gently, “There’s plenty of things I regret – and believe me; they deserve a good deal of regretting.” Cato started the engine up again.
“Where are we going?” said Proxima.
“To get the Empire their man. No doubt, they’ll put him to use until they don’t need him anymore, but there isn’t any other place we can take refuge until the Dyonuxiots fall back. We’re going to have to serve the Emperor until we can afford to do otherwise. But first, I want to make a little homecoming visit.”
* * * * *
A lump formed in Proxima’s throat as she stepped out of the jeep and saw the Gateway.
Her home for the last fourteen years.
She gulped, and caught up with Cato. The sight didn’t seem to have fazed Cato; he just had a grim and serious expression on his face – which was very normal for him.
Almost all the buildings had been flattened to rubble and debris, and there was still some fresh smoke billowing from them. Sentries patrolled the ground, shifting from one place to the next – looking for anything. People. Pets. Life.
The town center caught Proxima’s eye. Not only was it the only building that seemed to have remained relatively intact, but piled up to a frightening degree were the city’s dead. Proxima glanced at the pile as they passed by it, and was too horrified to look away. She knew what it was for. The sentries were going to give the dead townsfolk a mass cremation.
There wasn’t time for individual burials.
Her whole body just went limp – crashing onto her knees – and she felt like she’d switch off again. The pile towered over her. Her neighbors. Her schoolmates. Her colleagues. Even the people she favored the least. All of them stared at her with their blank, dead eyes; silently screaming through their gaping mouths. Several of the bodies had been mutilated; parts – noses, tongues, ears, fingers, whole heads, and genitals – had been severed and/or ripped off. Insects – maggots, buzzards, centipedes, flies, and others – crawled out from the ragged holes and buzzed from one place to the next; enjoying their feast before the vultures came.
Memento mori, the wind seemed to whisper.
Cato put a hand on Proxima’s shoulder, and she found that she’d been hyperventilating and her heartbeat was hammering in her ears.
“Come on,” he said gently, “Let’s go.”
Proxima swallowed, then nodded slowly before being dragged up by Cato. Her legs were heavy as she tried to walk away, and she pulled up her hood to block out the image [even though it was stuck in her mind and would certainly plague her dreams]. She looked down, and closed her eyes – allowing Cato to pull her along. She suddenly felt very small, and wanted to find a corner to go and cry in.
After a bit of walking, Proxima heard a steady clip-clop approach them.
A horse? she thought despite herself, What the hell is a horse doing…?
She looked up and [kind of] got her answer. A woman mounted on a chestnut warhorse halted the animal before Cato and Proxima. The woman looked no older than twenty, and had caramel-colored skin and deep blue eyes. She wore standard legionary clothing, and her plumed helmet confirmed her importance.
“Centurion Cato,” she said monotonously, “It’s good to have you back in the Legion.”
Cato nodded. “News travels fast,” he muttered.
“Well, you know Cornelius. He’s missed you sorely,” she said a little sarcastically.
Proxima interrupted the reunion by saying, “…Horse?”
“Ah, yes,” said the woman bitterly, “you’ve noticed.”
“This is Centurion Petra, Proxima,” Cato introduced, “Petra, this is Proxima – my protégée.”
Centurion Petra dismounted and a legionary took her horse away, “Good to meet you at last, Half-Caste,” she offered her hand, a little too generous, “We’ve heard so much.”
Proxima shook the woman’s hand and said, “You have?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “We heard you blinked out like a light bulb after surgery.”
Cato scowled, “Come on, Proxima,” he said, giving her a tug, “We have a job to do.”
“Aw, Cato,” said the Centurion, mockingly, “We’ve heard of your little… over-reaction also. Forming a soft-spot for the Half-Caste, are we?”
Before Cato could reply, Proxima grabbed his sleeve and pulled him away.
That idiot of a woman is asking to get her face bashed in! she thought angrily.
“Wait!” Petra called, “You can’t just walk around here without permission. State your business.”
Proxima stopped, and pulled out the Emperor’s letter. She threw it at the Centurion, and Cato raised his brows at Proxima’s behavior. Proxima looked away.
“This is different; I’m usually the one who does all the freaking out,” Cato murmured.
“Well, it’s only normal for the freak to ‘freak out’, Cato,” Proxima muttered.
“Proxima, don’t be like that.”
“Be like what? It’s not everyday I see a pile of dead people who used to be my friends! And it’s not everyday that I have to deal with a stupid cow like Petra! I – ”
Petra coughed and Proxima looked up. “That’s Centurion Petra to you, Half-Caste,” said Petra, “and you should know that offending a military superior holds severe punishment.”
Proxima laughed hysterically, “Hold on a second, you’re my military superior?”
Cato looked uneasily at Proxima, “Proxima, maybe you should–”
Proxima snatched the Emperor’s letter out of Petra’s hands, “How many times do you get a personal letter from the Emperor, eh?”
Petra raised her eyebrows.
“All you get are orders from Legate Cornelius! And besides, have you been called the ‘savior of humankind’? Have you been bred in a test-tube for that specific purpose? Have you been given an urgent military assignment a day after you recover from mental trauma? Hmm?”
Centurion Petra glared at Proxima.
“I thought not,” Proxima concluded, “Now if you don’t mind, Little Miss Superior, we have work to do. Get back to whatever you were cleaning up!”
And, without a backwards glance; Proxima stomped off into the direction their house used to be.
Cato caught up, and said, “…That was quite a performance.”
Proxima shrugged, “I learn from the best.”
“…Are you feeling alright?”
Cato raised his brows, “Um…”
“Like you said: It’s usually you who does all the freaking out, not me. I thought I’d get all emotional when we came back here, but not in this way. I thought I’d be sulking and moping about. But that horse-faced ‘madam’ made me all mad. I don’t like it, Cato, and I don’t see how you can be like this all the time.”
Cato stopped her, and held her by the shoulders, “Well, you handled it pretty well.”
“I did? I could have sworn I just killed her reputation.”
“But she didn’t get a broken nose, now did she?”
“…I suppose not.”
“If it was me, she’d have a broken face,” Cato laughed, as did Proxima, “But it’s good that you have some control over your temper. And you seemed to have gotten some smarts too. I wonder where from.”
“Again: I learn from the best.”
Cato smiled, and they walked along to their ruined home. The lump came back in Proxima’s throat. She looked at Cato.
He nodded solemnly, “Go on then. I’ll give you a minute.”
Proxima winced as debris crunched under her feet. All the memories; all the things that made her who she was – gone. She took a deep breath, and sank to her knees. She passed her palm over the rubble, tears dripping over them, and clenched her fists. She didn’t know what she was looking for. Nothing could possibly have survived by the look of the wreckage. Her hands shook, but she didn’t stay long. They had a job to do. She stumbled her way back to Cato, her face ashen but her jaw set.
“That was quick,” said Cato, “I thought you’d take a bit longer.”
Proxima didn’t reply, so Cato moved into the ruin a little further and carefully cleared the debris with his hands. Once he’d uncovered what he was looking for, Proxima’s forehead creased in confusion and she said, “When did that get there?”
On the floor, there was a set of whitewashed, double doors – like the ones you’d find on a cupboard.
“These aren’t the basement doors,” continued Proxima, “This… this was where the living room was, right?”
Cato wordlessly slid the doors open, and the contents beneath glittered in the midday light.
“Oh,” said Proxima, “The Gallery.”
“I put the doors in soon after we got the house,” Cato explained, “Then I put the floor boards over it. I didn’t want to put all my military weapons up for display – all too dangerous for an unpredictable person like you – so I stowed them away here. They’d never be found, unless I needed them for an emergency – which is what we have now. Come.”
Proxima squatted next to Cato, and peered in. It was amazing what Cato had collected over the years. Cato put his hand in, and pulled out piece of black material.
“My first Kevlar suit,” he said, proudly, “Should fit you by now.”
“What?” said Cato irritably, yet knowing the answer.
“You’re telling me that that was your size back when you were fifteen?”
Cato huffed, and crossed his arms indignantly.
If they weren’t in a heap of rubble, Proxima would be rolling around on the floor, “You were so tiny!”
Cato sighed, “Don’t make fun. Do you want it or not?”
“But Cato –“
“I know, I know, I was a tiny little bugger! Get over it,” Cato snapped, and then pressed the suit into Proxima’s hands, “It could do with a little wash, I think.”
“What if it shrinks?” snorted Proxima.
“Proxima, stop it.”
“Right,” Proxima coughed, “Sorry.”
Cato, still looking irritated, pulled out a sheathed sword and handed it over to Proxima. Proxima looked up at him.
“Well, go on,” said Cato, “Take a look.”
Proxima held the pommel in one hand and the sheath in the other, and pulled the two apart. She smiled a little at the sound the sword made as it left its scabbard then she held it upright before her face. Its diamond edge gleamed as it caught the sunlight.
“Cato…” said Proxima in awe, “It’s… It’s…”
Proxima gave Cato a look, “Thank you for destroying the moment.”
He chuckled, “It’s my first sword. It saved my life so many times, I couldn’t bare to chuck it out.”
“This one looks fine… why would you need another one?”
“The Emperor gives you a new sword every time you, uh… ‘level-up’, so to speak. It’s a ‘token of his gratitude’.”
“Does it have a name?”
“Who? The sword?”
“Yes, the sword.”
“Why would my sword have a name?”
“Swords have names!” said Proxima, offended, “There’s Glamdring and Andulin and Sting and –“
“Right, anyway,” Cato cut in, “Here’s the belt. You’re going to need a bit of training with it – it’s heavier than the ones in the Training Room back at the Decagon. But we’ll get to that later. There’s some other stuff…”
From the Gallery, Cato produced a regular bow, a crossbow, a quiver with two compartments – one for diamond-headed arrows and one for regular – and a few daggers.
“Explain something to me, Cato,” said Proxima, “Why diamond?”
Cato thought a moment, “Dyonuxiots… Their skin is… special. It’s not hard, but it’s tough, Proxima. It took the lot in the science department ages to figure out that only really tough resources would cut through Dyonuxiot skin – like titanium and others. But diamond is also very special. It not only cuts them down, but the Dyonuxiots are sort of allergic to it. As soon as you open a wound with a diamond weapon, it goes immediately septic. They could practically die within a few minutes if they got a diamond paper-cut!”
“That sounds… so…”
“I was going to say ‘far-fetched’, but I guess both work.”
Cato shrugged, and then produced a gun from the gallery.
“A gun?” said Proxima, “But I thought they were –”
“Shh!” said Cato, “Banned?” he whispered, “They were. But when you have loads of connections, you can get one made.”
He passed the gun over to Proxima, and she examined it. It was an old design – a revolver – the sort you’d see being pulled out by Sherlock Holmes. It had a hammer, a slightly stiff trigger, and was loaded with six bullets. She saw that the bullets were also diamond. Proxima looked up at Cato questioningly.
“Guns were banned because bullets became wasteful. Sure, you can go around collecting arrows, but it’s not like you could dig bullets out of a dead alien’s body, now could you? But there’s no arguing that a bullet can go farther than an arrow, and it’s far more discreet and accurate. That’s why I got this one made – for emergencies.” He took the gun back from Proxima and said slowly, “Only use it when you most desperately need to.”
Proxima nodded, “Why don’t you keep it for now?”
“I intend to.”
Cato then rummaged through the Gallery for his own equipment – as it seemed that the ‘give Proxima my old stuff’ session was over. He produced a legionary uniform, a broadsword, a Centurion’s helmet [the plume being – to Proxima’s astonishment – holographic], another double-compartment quiver, a bow, and finally a full water-skin.
He held the water skin in front of Proxima, “Now this is something I didn’t expect to find…” he said, scratching his head.
“Cato, how long has that drink been down there!” said Proxima, gagging on the horrid smell.
“It’s no ordinary drink, Proxima. This here is,” Cato paused dramatically, “Dyonuxiot blood.”
Proxima looked quizzical, “…A memento?”
Cato stared at Proxima, “Honestly, I’m not that cruel! No, it’s not a memento. Dyonuxiot blood is a very strong cure, Proxima. It can’t heal broken bones, but it can cure poisoning and can guard against infection. It is also the only thing that can neutralize the effects of Dyonuxiot venom. It’s very hard to come by – as it needs to be extracted while the thing is still alive. It isn’t the best drink you could get your hands on, but it’s certainly the most useful.”
“Couldn’t you do anything to make it smell better?”
“I’ll probably have to change the water-skin, but other than that – no.”
Cato brought out two backpacks and ordered Proxima to bundle her stuff up into one. They’d sort it out once they got back to the Decagon. Proxima frowned. There were still a whole lot of useful items in the Gallery.
“We can’t take it all,” said Cato, reading her mind, “But if you ever need anything from here, you’ll know where to find it.”
Proxima nodded as Cato pulled the doors back together, and covered them with the debris.
“A question, Cato,” said Proxima, “Did you rip open the floorboards to get that axe out?”
“The one you used on the night of the attack.”
“Oh, that thing! Nah, that’s been lying around in our closet for ages, I’m surprised you hadn’t noticed it.”
“In our closet?” said Proxima slowly.
Cato nodded, “Yes. Is there a problem with that?”
“We had a Dyonuxiot-killing axe in our–?” Proxima shook her head, “Oh, never mind!”
Cato chuckled, “Well, we’d better get back to finding Roderigo.”
Proxima nodded and strapped her sword belt over her shoulder. It was heavy, but she didn’t let it show.
Cato smiled, “Suits you.”
“One more thing,” said Proxima.
“Which is your favorite weapon?”
Cato looked at Proxima thoughtfully, and then touched the cord around her neck – the cord he’d given to her so many years ago.
“This one,” he said.