The Ninth Mandala

I

 

 

 

 

 

           

            In its sheathe, his blade rattled as a blood-soaked piece of steel. With each crunching step toward his ship—grey and shimmering—the weight of his suit escalated his breath in a crescendo.

            Hissing was the cockpit upon its closure, humming was the engine when he flipped the switch, and groaning was the landing gear as it receded into the hull. The thrusters obeyed the pilot’s command of a strong propel, and once the altitude reached a certain height, that planet’s drape of a blue sky was replaced by the listless canvas of space.

***

            A drink.

            This space station bustled with every walk of life: scavengers and scrappers, bounty-hunters and murderers, and all-too-many vendors. But regardless of the hangar’s circulation, Seer could only think of a cold glass.

            A burning, cold glass.

            He asked the bartender for a cheap liquor—one that reeked of thruster fuel. But the sharp singe it brought didn’t stray him from his natural desire.

            For, his surroundings had too much from which to steal. And perhaps his lust for liquor—which swelled more often than he’d like—only existed to masquerade his natural avariciousness. It was a sort of greed that had amounted to something uncontrollable over the years—something morose but irresistible.

            Through the pipe-smoky haze of the bar, a glint drew his eye.

            Seer knew the flash in an instant.

            A blade, at a Mandala’s hip, no less.

            He gulped down the liquor and sprung to his feet. Seer trailed the woman out of the bar, focused on nothing but that sheathed fang. He knew of her nature, though he knew nothing of its contents. For, a Mandala could be anyone—anyone who’s running from anything.

            Seer settled on her name—which he’d gotten from her ship’s ID—as the only piece of information.

            64271-Ravenna.

            And once she piloted out of the station’s hangar in a luminous boost, Seer followed suit. He commenced a jump with a complete stranger.

***

            That final time he stole—as he’d promised himself—brought something new to the normal rush. It wasn’t guilt, no, but the urge to do more than steal. And as Seer could recall, that galaxy—its name beyond him now—felt vastly inferior.

            One small, skeletal planet of Arista held nothing of interest to anyone. Even thieves found futility in flying to a planet with such little trader’s value. No treasured minerals sat deep in the mouths of caves, plants didn’t hold precious silk or pulp, nor did the people have esteemed knowledge worth buying. Honest folk lived in those anemic villages, carrying out cyclical, self-sufficient lifestyles that bothered no one and drew no unnecessary attention.

            But on that particular occasion—a year before the blade—Seer’s sights set themselves upon something beyond monetary draw. That feeling—like the burn of liquor—set his core alight with a voracious flame.

            The rush of a successful theft.

            And on Arista, he’d have no distractions from obtaining such an exhilaration. It wasn’t a militaristic planet, nor did a crime-ridden underbelly plague the global economy. The place’s simplicity teased Seer with an easy meal to satiate his hunger.

            One thing he knew of, even before he landed upon the planet’s arid surface, was the thing these people treasured. Value came in many different shapes, and for the inhabitants of Arista, it came in the form of kin.

            Once Seer set foot onto his first patch of sand, the quest to steal a person commenced. The townscape’s shadowy presence sat on the horizon against the orangey drench of a setting sun. He’d wrapped himself in crude cloth, veiling not only his figure and identity, but also his pistol.

            Just as that sun’s hue abated, and a black evening brimmed on sullen arrival, his first step planted onto village grounds. And anemic it was, as each hut possessed little more than likewise livestock, and the wind made every home groan. Sand kicked up like snow, percussing against structures in a whisper.

            Only one girl—oddly human-looking, but not quite—stood outdoors. She gathered water from a crude well, relaying a smile to the supposed vagabond Seer masqueraded as. “You come from afar, yes?”

            He nodded. “Wind’s picking up. Think there’s anyone here that can give me a place to rest?”

            “Me and my mother live right here,” she stated, gesturing to the home at her side. “You’re welcome to the spare cot.”

            He gave warm thanks. And inside, as the girl guided him, he was greeted by her alleged mother.

            “You staying the night here, stranger?”

            “Call me Seer.” He always used his real name—a standard he kept with himself. “And if you wouldn’t mind, I would be in your debt.”

            “Nonsense,” she said. “It would be my pleasure.”

            While the evening went without a proper meal, he did receive several stalks of a peculiar plant to gnaw on. “These taste good,” he said.

            She nodded in thanks. “Your accent is unfamiliar.” Her eyebrows raised. “You a space traveler?”

            “I come from a long way,” he reiterated.

            They showed him to that cot—a messy, cloth-veiled sack of sand in the corner of the bedroom—and allowed him to prepare it for sleep however he wished. He patted his hands upon the cot’s belly, attempting to appease the curious eye of the girl in the doorway.

            But her gaze lingered, on his figure no less.

            Later, as the night consumed the village with dormancy, Seer began his morose operation. His scurrying footsteps—no louder than a field mouse’s—trickled about the sleeping hut. The girl, as he’d settled upon, was his apt target.

            She slept alongside her mother on a thick, unfurled mat in the living area. Their torsos rose and fell in graceful unison, moving sonorously like the moon through the sky. Neither of them had stirred and continued their idleness as Seer encroached with languid, ginger toe.

            He peered at the girl’s white face—a glint in the darkness.

            His fingers hovered over the pistol’s handle in a rigid claw.

            But that trigger—the gateway to murder—beckoned him. Kill her, it said, Kill them both and let them bleed like peasants.

            He took two, heavy, pedaling steps back.

            The woman stirred, and the girl darted awake to a pin-straight seat. Though, as they both opened their bleary eyes, the only thing that greeted them was the endless abyss of the night.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Gunfire was that icy planet’s rhythm.

            Each cave from which they scurried—only to go into another—acted as temporary shelter. And the intense snowfall only diminished their visibility. On many of these short bursts of frantic, desperate sprints, members of Ravenna’s squad often got lost.

            Their screams acted as the melody to that rhythm.

            But the snowfall would abate in the evenings, giving a blanket of much needed comfort to that same squad. On a particular night, they gathered in the mouth of a wide, spacious grotto. Outside the tarp-veiled, crude campsite, Ravenna stood with a watchful eye, rifle in hand. Her image-intensifier lens offered a well-lit—albeit grainy—sight of the black evening.

            She’d only just began field work as per her request. Prior, Ravenna gave orders from above based upon secondhand intelligence. Even now, she had volunteered for this watch shift, something her subordinates protested against.

            Luckily, her ears had plenty to listen to: her lens’ hum, distant laser fire, and indistinct chatter at her back. Otherwise, she would’ve had to make some of her own. Ravenna didn’t enjoy such a daunting task.

            And even though she peered into the exposed evening, that wasn’t what she looked at. Instead, Ravenna’s eye followed the wisp of her breath in a slow trail, desperate to distract from the traffic her mind encompassed.

            A footstep crunched behind her.

            She whipped around, only to find the familiar face of Byrne.

            “Easy,” he said. “I’ve just received some word from the air.”

            “We moving again?”

            “I suppose you could say that. Only we’re not going to another cave.”

            She scrunched her brow.

            “There’s a near settlement—a village. They’re saying that they’ve discovered a huge stash of weaponry held inside, not to mention a couple of important individuals.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Commanding officers.”

            She sighed, turning toward the night again with a shuffle. “Who else?”

            “Who else?”

            “Are there civilians?”

            “I wasn’t given that info.”

            Ravenna scoffed. “Well, it’s important. I’m sick of these scumbags, which is why I came down here.” She slung her rifle onto her back, tapping at the little display on her wrist.

            “What are you doing?” Byrne asked.

            “Dialing them.” She shook her head. “I’m not allowing details to be left out.”

            Static laced the signal.

            “Yes? This is Aerial Command.

            “Where’s this settlement?” Ravenna interrogated.

            “I’ve sent the coordinates your way, Officer.

            “I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” she said, “Are there civilians—”

            “Officer, we cannot disclose—

            “Don’t you think that’s—”

            “Do not interrupt me, Officer. Follow the instructions in the packet I’ve sent, and don’t get any of my men killed.

            From thereon, their journey continued as it had been decreed. The collective buzz of lenses kept them tightly-knit in scurrying form. They kept their rifles close and followed their superiors through the calm tundra. Crunching was the snow below nimble footsteps, howling was the powdery wind, and smoldering was the pit in Ravenna’s stomach.

            She knew the answer to her own question, how they’d go about mission of such grave importance: destruction. This wasn’t a stealth mission, nor something they’d go in and carry out with precision and delicacy.

            And with such sickening spite, as if with spectral purpose, it was Ravenna’s duty to order the chaos directly. In her hands was the power to eliminate—to decimate.

            But ultimately, where a village lies, villagers reside.

            Ravenna couldn’t deliver such a fate and still smile without a single thought.

            But she stood—her very own squad at her back—before the settlement’s humming scape. Strands of white, dancing steam laced the sky, emanating from the chimneys and smokestacks of each home. Ravenna took in that sight, following that steam with her gaze like she did her breath.

            Her radio beeped. “Give the command, Officer.

            She sighed. “Affirmative.”

            Ravenna couldn’t bear the thought. No one would be left to kill, like her orders described. Her subordinates wouldn’t have to “finish anyone off.”

            There would be nothing left.

            “Alright,” Ravenna said. “Let’s set up a perimeter.”

            The squad moved in converse directions, scampering in steady squats.

            She closed her eyes, listening to the compositions of that silence: the wind, of course, but also the distant chatter within the village, crunching of her soldiers’ footsteps, and crescendo of her shattering heartbeat.

            “Status?

            “We’ve created a secure perimeter, sir.”

            “On your command, Ravenna.

            She let go of a lurching breath, which floated into the air as fog, and dissipated into nothing. “This is Officer Ravenna Sprague ordering a missile strike on coordinates six-five-seven by two-seven-nine.”

            “Order received. Can you confirm?

            A tear fell from her eye. “This is Officer Ravenna Sprague confirming the preceding order.”

            “Confirmation received.

            No cataclysmic destruction produced a louder symphony of death.

            And no subsequent silence was ever so deliberate and cavernous.

***

            As Ravenna descended onto the planet’s desolate surface, the thud of her landing gear’s unfurling came as she flipped a switch. It greeted the ice-caked ground, shaking the hull minutely. She unleashed the biting wind through receding the cockpit, and thereafter, she leapt out of her warm ship.

            Ravenna’s steps were slow through that harsh weather—slower now than they were on that distant evening. Four decades of snow buried the village’s ashy skeleton. The occasional rooftop peeked from the snow’s depths, giving her a sense of surroundings.

            But she didn’t need such a hint, for, she knew exactly where she walked.

            Her blade clinked against her hip with each trudge, and the glass of her helmet’s visor fogged with each labored breath. The wind gnawed at her limbs, shoving her weight into an unsteady spiral. Yet, even after Ravenna fell to the snow, she returned to her feet with a grimace.

            The single, erect smokestack in the center of the village was her further guide. It pulled her on a crude string until she fell onto her knees again. There, against the festering chimney sat a snow-sheathed skull, its holes for eyes peering endlessly into Ravenna’s visor.

            She removed her helmet with a hiss and threw it into the wind. Her torso recoiled, until she befell to a sob, ordering her to fall onto her stomach. The woman’s face grew numb in the tundra. It gave her no flexibility to express her emotions. Ravenna only sobbed, right in the plain of desolate snow and ash.

 

 

III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Even as the shadows of the clouds grow heavy, frozen by a voice somewhere distant, he is still invited there.

            And even as a raging storm fills the night, the ancient voice still calls to her, a call she accepts for a reason cold and dead.

***

            He stood before that trail of footprints, the decayed settlement an image in his visor.

            She stood at the end of them, below the smokestack.

            He took encroaching steps in a languid but certain march.

            She stood idle.

            The murky clouds swirled in a cryptic spiral, hovering above as a dark canopy. The vicious wind took the snow in its invisible fingers, whipping it about in chaos. Thunder rolled and growled, bringing glints of cloud-veiled lightning to the tundra.

            He marched further.

            This time, she approached as well, standing tautly before the desecrated village.

            Off came his helmet, its burial in the snow subsequent, and out ripped his blade, its steel shimmering icily beneath the electric sky.

            She slowly uncaged her sword, allowing it to jeer against its metallic scabbard with a hiss.

            They drew close to each other with crunching, sonorous steps. Like the gunfire that came forty years before it, their mutual approach was the only percussion of this desolate planet. Both of them knew—consciously or not—that this duel was to be one strike—less than a second.

            They couldn’t have been more than ten steps apart, now, and it allowed him to get a close look at that wondrous steel. Its sharpness was ferocious, and the metal’s hue was darker than the canvas of space. It was clear—nothing less than pristine, even below the murky sky.

            And as they faced each other, their eyes filled with smoldering disdain, a strike of perfect lightning split the clouds. It sent them into a mutual lunge.

            Just as the thunder growled—just as their feet planted onto the snow, his weapon sundered hers in two, painting the canvas of white snow a bright red.