Rain drowned the roads across the Waste. Concrete structures sagged beneath the weight of the downpour and waterfalls poured from the tops of rusted skyscrapers. Miles out from Atlas, Asana had grown weary of the rubble shifting beneath her feet. Kaigin, however, teleported up and through the crumbling buildings with ease. He grinned as Asana trudged behind him.
“Keep up, Rin! You’re the one who wanted to come out here,” Kaigin said, warping behind her. “You can see the road. Most would call that an advantage.”
The “fulfillment of his pact with GAIA” – Kaigin’s preferred euphemism for his destruction of the Reactor’s core – scrubbed years from his soul. He relished combat again, often coaxing Asana into friendly duels. He’d even grown amused by his reputation as a “dark and mysterious” freelancer, briefly entertaining the idea of capitalizing on it as the face of Ronin Tuxedos. (That is, until they unveiled their Kaigin-inspired indoor sunglasses).
“I asked for proof that the Rens lied to us. You’re the one who led us here.”
Asana leapt off a dark concrete stone. It collapsed behind her, tearing through five floors before crashing into a surging waterway. She eyed its long path down warily.
Kaigin stifled a laugh. “It seems the foundation is no match for your strength.”
She acted as if she hadn’t heard him, but the moment Kaigin was fatigued from warping, she dashed away, forcing him to track her path through the rain. When Kaigin finally found her, it was only because she’d laughed aloud at his attempt to sniff the air for clues.
“It seems you don’t need me to guide you anymore,” he observed, sheepishly.
“I could feel Nidus calling to us the moment we entered the Waste.” Asana’s sword radiated a yearning energy, urging her westward.
Kaigin must have felt the draw as well, as he was not often sentimental. “Do you ever miss Nidus?”
“The quiet was nice. The only time Atlas is quiet is after you’ve tried to destroy it,” Asana said. “And I miss the springtime. Xi-Ren would pluck fruit from the top of the trees for me, and say, ‘The ones drenched in sun taste the best.’”
“You were always the favorite.”
“And you were always stealing the candied fruit that Bo-Ren made for the new disciples. He’d get so furious when you ran away calling him ‘boring’.”
“Well, he shouldn’t have been so boring,” Kaigin said, dryly.
“What about you? Do you miss anything about Nidus?”
“No,” he replied. “Everything important came to Atlas with me.”
A blush rose in her cheek. If Kaigin noticed her quickened heartbeat, Asana was grateful he didn’t show it. “Do you remember when we first came to Atlas?”
“You, me, and Tol-Ren, together forever.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
“It seemed like the Waste got bigger and more twisted every day. I was so exhausted by the time we reached the overlook, I thought Atlas was a mirage. It looked like the whole city was made of light, with glass pillars drifting up and down through the clouds. I never imagined a place like that could exist.”
“I remember your voice when you told me about it. I knew it must have been beautiful,” he said. “I wish I could have shared that with you.”
“But we did share it.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Kaigin’s voice shifted and pain flashed across his face. “Our experiences of Nidus were different. The Rens – Tol-Ren – took so much from me.”
Asana’s hand tensed at the urge to touch his cheek. “What happened with Tol-Ren? With your training? You never told me.”
“I thought you knew. The other disciples whispered about it constantly.”
“Your word is the only one that matters.”
Kaigin hesitated a beat, and then shrugged.
“Tol-Ren tore my eyes out.”
He said it casually, as if remarking on the weather. In some ways, that was more disturbing to Asana than the words themselves. He sensed that, and elaborated.
“The void changed me. Colors. Lights. Shapes. Everything was different. The nanites helped with some physical complications, but my eyes? It affected me. Or, rather, I allowed it to affect me. Tol-Ren saw that it had become a distraction, so...” Kaigin’s hand shot forward and plucked an invisible eye from the air.
Asana was horrified. “I assumed the ‘gift’ had blinded you. Su-Ren said it affected us differently. I had no idea…” She paused. “Is that why you killed him?”
The memory of Kaigin cutting out Tol-Ren’s core flashed in her mind. It had only been a few years since then – a few years since he’d turned his daggers on her too. Her hand dropped unconsciously to the scar on her hip. “No. I told you, I did what was necessary. We’re going to Nidus to prove it.” Shame crept into his voice. “But I enjoyed revenge against him. And I will always regret hurting you.”
“Don’t. Tol-Ren was right, like any broken clock. I adapted. And I was better for it.” Kaigin suddenly placed a hand on Asana’s shoulder and nodded his head toward the west. “Those trees you miss so much are in bloom. Nidus must be close.”
He teleported toward the mountain range as Asana dashed to catch up. They traveled up a narrow path until they reached a low clearing where the rocks were streaked deep red and purple. There, the sweet scent of fruit blossoms was almost overwhelming.
Kaigin placed his hand on the mountain and crept his fingers across the dirt and lichen, feeling for something beneath the stone. When he felt a puff of cool air from within the solid rock, he smiled.
“The door is here.”
Together, they pounded their fists against the stone, cracking the dirt and exposing the circular door hidden behind it. In the center of the door, a mark of sacrifice, like the one emblazoned on Kaigin’s chest, was engraved around a tiny hole. Asana placed her fingertip against the opening and didn’t flinch as a fine needle pricked her.
Grinding gears shook the ground and blood spiraled out across the shifting metal panels, revealing a pitch black passageway through the mountain. As they walked forward, rushing water echoed around them and wind whistled past their ears. In the supreme darkness, every sound spiraled on for eons.
Asana was relieved when the pinprick of light finally grew into a wide open view of the valley she grew up in. Winter must have been harsh, because the northern waterfall was full and fast. It surged into a radamantium-lined moat, through irrigation channels across the valley, and beneath dozens of hovering bridges, before disappearing into the east side of the mountain.
The valley itself burst with color from purple wisteria, red maples, and white magnolias. Lush greens overran the terraced fields and stubborn wildflowers clung to every mountain crag. Nanite pollinators still buzzed from flower to flower with dutiful precision.
And there, up against the northern mountain, was the Temple of Nidus.
Grass had grown through the cracks of the wraparound wooden steps. The metal eaves of the roof were tarnished, changing from bright red to speckled silver and brown. But still, fusion lanterns glowed and swayed against the temple’s rafters, and the walls stood as tall and proud as ever.
Asana remembered running down the steps every morning in straw slippers still wet with dew. She would climb up the sun-warmed mountain stones to watch the temple’s long, cantilever rooftops transform with the elements, opening and closing like the petals of a flower. In heavy wind, the wide windows would twist to batten themselves with a loud crack, making so many of the lesser disciples flinch.
From this height, Asana could even see the holographic training fields. The dusty platforms emulated different terrain and rotated up and down so that warriors could train at any altitude. She handily defeated Kaigin (and anyone else who challenged her) in duels there right up until the day she left.
Kaigin teleported toward the temple, beckoning Asana to follow.
“Where are we going?” she called out.
The sanctum was carved deep into the mountains, only accessible through the main temple. It was where Asana and Kaigin – the weapons from which the two warriors inherited their names – were once stored.
Both main doors groaned from disuse, waking up the whole temple. Years of dust rose from their rest in a huff. The rice paper doors where disciples used to line their slippers rattled and shook. Cobwebs danced above the unlit fusion hearth where students would gather for morning meditation. Silk banners waved beneath the wide windows.
“It’s so empty,” Asana murmured.
“It was emptying out before we were even born. Some Rens left to investigate the dying Reactors. A couple more left to fight in the Titan War. Tol-Ren left with us.” Kaigin said. “Whatever they intended to do with this place clearly changed.”
Kaigin wandered the main hall, rebuilding the temple’s layout in his memory. He placed a hand over a gash on a nearby column and plucked at a tuft of white fabric still caught in the splinters. “I think this might be some of Haru’s gi from when I threw my shuriken at him.”
“And how long did you spend in solitary meditation for that?”
“Only half the time he spent for failing to dodge it,” Kaigin replied with a smirk. “I don’t regret it. If I wasn’t sent there so often, I may never have met you.”
“What do you mean?”
“We met in the meditation suites – well, I met you there. You were too busy training to notice me.”
“Now I remember.” Asana grimaced. “The Rens made us share so that I could be an example for you.”
“And I made you so angry, you threw a pot at my head. I think the only reason you spoke to me at all was because I was able to slice it in half before it hit.” He paused by the hallway. “Do you think Haru survived the waste after the Rens released him?”
“If he wasn’t strong enough to claim an ancient, I doubt he could make it out there,” Asana replied, absently. She was tracing a finger across the words engraved on the hallway arch: the real battle exists within.
Fusion lanterns flickered to life as the two continued toward the sanctum. Delicate watercolor paintings of birch forests, crashing waves, nine-tailed foxes, and whole worlds in between decorated the walls. Asana peered into every open room, lingering over the cerasylar dummies in the practice room, the floating weapon racks in the armory, and the nanite baths in the infirmary.
Soon, they came across the “key” to the sanctum.
The floor-to-ceiling carving told the history of the Rens: their creation, their triumphs, and their losses. Within the piece, the 13 Rens of Nidus were rendered with such detail, it seemed they could attack at any moment. Chests heaved. Eyes burned. Stone silks flowed around every limb. But all of their hands were empty, outstretched and wanting. To open the water lock, each Ren had to place their weapon into the carving itself.
“What do we do?” Asana asked. “We can’t open the door.”
“We don’t need to. Hold onto me.”
“You’re going to warp us inside?” She looked concerned as she stepped into Kaigin’s arms.
“There’s nothing to fear. You may feel a pressure on your chest; try to breathe through it, if you can. And no matter what, keep your eyes closed,” Kaigin advised.
He held her close, noticing with a smile that the honeyed scent of orange blossoms still clung to her skin. “Are you ready?” he murmured.
Asana nodded, and his grip around her waist tightened.
The next moment, ice flowed through her veins, air evaporated in her lungs, and she gasped, drowning in darkness. Then, just as suddenly, she slammed into the ground.
Kaigin steadied her. “You’re okay, Rin.”
Asana took a deep breath, focusing out the pain with sheer willpower. “Didn’t you want to show me something?” she asked.
“It’s over there. Take my hand?”
“I’m fine,” she said, stiffly.
“It’s for me. It’s scary in here.”
Her ribs ached as she laughed.
Kaigin guided her to a thin veil of water that emptied into a pool around the sanctum. As they approached it, their weapons glowed.
Kaigin raised one dagger up to the silvery screen of water. An ethereal voice sounded out. Resurrect me, Kaigin. Keep the Atlas from their hands.
A map flashed across the screen that lead to coordinates Asana did not recognize. Free me from the Rens. Keep them from the Atlas.
“What’s happening? Whose voice is that?”
“That was GAIA,” Kaigin said. “I heard her for the first time when we left Nidus. By the time we reached the city, she was part of me. I didn’t know what was happening until I came back here and found this.”
“I don’t understand.”
Kaigin lifted her sword hand and pushed the weapon up toward the water. New images spun across the screen. A flash, and Tol-Ren was placing nanite threads into the core of a reactor. He knelt before it as the core pulsed purple and blue. Then, he reached into the light and pulled out the sword, Asana.
Another flash, and Asana watched as Tol-Ren lifted a baby girl out of the nanite baths in the infirmary. As he did, the blade, Asana, glowed bright. His booming voice reverberated around the room. We have successfully merged organic matter with GAIA’s core cells from Hyperion. Experimental subject, 78, will remain in Nidus.
“What is this?”
“It’s what they did to us,” Kaigin said, quietly.
The voices of more Rens joined in a chorus around them, each blurring into the next.
The injection will activate the nanites fused into their DNA. But half of them perished on activation! We can’t afford failure with the Reactors dying around us. These weapons were gifts from GAIA; they cannot be remade. And these are GAIA’s children. They’re weak organic matter – better we cull them young. The strongest among them will lead us to GAIA.
Kaigin prowled the room as he spoke. “From what I’ve learned, the Rens were furious at GAIA. When GAIA abandoned the world, she abandoned the Rens, too. They blamed humanity for driving her away, but I suspect they were part of why she left.”
“The Rens created hundreds of us, trying to find a few capable of wielding her weapons. They thought there was some secret in them that they couldn’t see. But the Rens don’t understand GAIA. And just like they couldn’t stop her from leaving, they can’t control us.”
He touched Asana’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Asana’s hand dropped down to her side. “Su-Ren found me in the waste,” she muttered. “She saved me and carried me back to Nidus.”
“And you hear GAIA every day? Does that mean she controls you? Did she make you destroy the Reactor?”
“My actions are my own. I didn’t want the Rens to get what they’re looking for, and neither did GAIA.”
“Why don’t I hear her?”
“That question has been on my mind,” Kaigin said. “I hoped this place would give us an answer. Would you try the water again? Think of GAIA. Think of times you’ve felt Asana’s influence on you.”
Asana raised her sword to the screen, but nothing happened.
“Why would this be?” Kaigin wondered aloud. “I guess your creation was different than mine. They had to use preserved data from Hyperion, since it was already dead. Mine, they farmed fresh from Atlas.”
He turned to her. “Have you ever been to Hyperion?”
“I wonder what would happen if you did.”
Asana closed her eyes. “Sevi… could I be alone for a moment. Please,” she murmured.
He squeezed her hand gently. “Of course. Call my name when you’re ready to leave.”
Once he’d disappeared, she thought of her past and lifted her sword to the screen again.
Old memories played out from new perspectives. She saw herself turning in her wooden training blade and smiling as Tol-Ren brought over her first metal sword. Then, there was the day of her first nanite injection – “the gift” that turned her flesh purple. And the first time she’d entered this chamber to receive her ancient weapon. Su-Ren’s proud voice echoed through the room, uttering her new name for the first time: “Goodbye, Rin. And welcome, Asana,” she said.
As Asana’s thoughts turned to Su-Ren, the images shifted.
Su-Ren was cradling a baby in her arms. “Look at you, meditating. So peaceful and strong. You will be a great warrior,” she said, smiling. The android turned to Tol-Ren, who stood beside her. “Let’s call this one Rin, because she’s a little mini-Ren, already. Aren’t you? Hmm?”
“You’re getting attached,” Tol-Ren warned.
“Hush,” she murmured. “Oh, I didn’t mean you, little one.”
The memories kept spinning. There was Su-Ren, plaiting Asana’s hair into neat braids and mending her skinned knees. Her whole life, Su-Ren was there, guiding her meditation and focusing her thoughts. Teaching her what to believe. How to think. Getting inside her head. Using her to find GAIA?
Anger shot through Asana like a bolt. Was it all a manipulation? If Sevi was right, would she one day hear GAIA’s voice in her head as well? To what end? There was so much that the Rens kept from her.
She wasn’t sure how long she stayed watching her life pass by on the screen, but as each lie played out, one thing became clear: Su-Ren had much to answer for.
“Sevi,” Asana murmured.
Kaigin reappeared at her side.
Asana and Kaigin arrived back in Atlas in the dead of night, taking a ship from the border to Asana’s penthouse suspended above the western rim of the city. Asana had picked that location because it had a long view of the mountains where Nidus was hidden. Now, as she gazed out into the darkness, she wondered if she ever wanted to think of it again.
When they dropped down to the garden path to her home, they both stopped, surprised to hear music playing from inside.
… We’re forging a new future! And that includes YOU, version 2.
As they approached the door, their weapons radiated a cold, familiar energy. Kaigin grimaced, knowing full well who was waiting for them inside. He mouthed, “You gave her a key?” with disappointment, before cloaking himself in smoke.
Asana threw the door open. “Su-Ren,” she said, looking over at the android sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat in the center of the room.
“Good evening,” the Ren replied.
Su-Ren dashed to Asana’s side as Kaigin warped past and slashed the air where Su-Ren had been sitting.
“Predictable as always,” Su-Ren purred. “Asana, I came to speak to you. Privately.” Her eyes narrowed at Kaigin.
He grimaced. “She has no time for your lies.”
“Sevi, please.” Asana turned to Su-Ren. “I think that would be good.” She extended a hand to the garden and both women stepped out into the night, much to Kaigin’s irritation.
“You’ve recreated Nidus in your own home,” Su-Ren mused, running her fingers through the suspension fountain and observing the fireflies flickering through the magnolias. “It’s lovely.”
Asana gripped the handle of her sword in anger. “Is that all you have to say?”
“No. Of course not.” Su-Ren held her arms wide, palms open, as a sign of peace. “I wanted to tell you that we aren’t angry with you for assisting your friend. Loyalty was always your best quality. We only wish you would reconsider where your loyalties lie.”
“Who’s ‘we’? Do you speak for Omni now?”
A satisfied smile spread across the android’s face. “Who said anything about Omni?”
Inside, Kaigin paced back and forth. His daggers burned cold in his hand, as they always did in Su-Ren’s presence. If Asana wanted privacy, he would give her privacy, but he would not leave Su-Ren unmonitored.
He focused intently on the sound of her core whirring in its housing. Voices faded in the background. The low hum of holotechs disappeared. The only sound in his head was the spin of her mechanical heart, pinpointing her location in his mind.
White hot pain exploded in his chest. Blood flooded his mouth, drowning him in heat. His hands were slick, stinging as they groped at the notched blade being pulled through his ribs. He collapsed onto his knees, confused, as the cold pull of Resurrection crept through his spine.
A heavy leg kicked him onto his back.
“Predictable as always,” a deep voice boomed.
“SEVI!” Asana cried out, storming back into the room.
The distant echo of Asana’s voice was the last thing Kaigin heard before the Reactor took him.
Tol-Ren grinned at Asana as he cleaned Kaigin’s blood off of his katana. The open cut across Tol-Ren’s chestplate glowed bright blue in the dark.
“Was that necessary? We’re guests. Now there’s blood everywhere,” Su-Ren chided. She walked to Tol-Ren’s side and looped her arm through his.
“Necessary? No. But it was so well-deserved,” Tol-Ren replied with a smile. “Now Asana, as Su was saying, we’re guests. I believe that calls for tea.”