Magnolias, Underground

by Vega

The Heart of Rage has been silenced. As he reckons with the aftermath of a hollow victory, Kelly Falco has an appointment with two ghosts: one from past, one from present.

Chapter One

"Over there," says the hawker to the strangers in front of his pottery stall. "Little guy, short black hair, sleeveless vest. Yup, that's him. He's one of them what silenced the Heart of Rage."

They've seen him. Kelly looks around for an escape route. The bazaar is sparsely populated this morning, damn it. He makes for a nearby fruit stall, sidles past a gaggle of grannies chattering over melons, and dodges behind the stall's greased paper awning.

The Forge is only thirty metres away, javelins standing at attention on their launchpads. His interceptor's gritty paintjob beckons. Kelly speedwalks toward it, barely resisting the urge to break into a run.

They corner him mere steps from the platform: two strider engineers, with the ropy forearms and heavy tread that he once bore. The gal says, "Are you Kelly Falco? The Freelancer who silenced the Freemarkian Cataclysm?"

Kelly sets his teeth. Here we go again. He says, "I'm not the only one who silenced the Heart of Rage."

They don't seem to hear. Big grins, claps on his back. The fellow pumps his hand, saying, "Freelancer, we wanna say thank you. We -- being Yorinda here, and me, Dannik, and the whole crew of Strider B-eight-four-one alias Jitterbug Rooster, out of Fortuo. Not to mention all our families and loved ones."

"Ten years that Cataclysm was swirling around up there," adds Yorinda. "And you guys were the ones who finally beat it! Must feel good, huh?"

He should feel good about it. Kelly shuts his eyes for a moment. Twice the Heart of Rage had sent him running. The third time, he stood his ground and defeated it, and in the process, also silenced Haluk's rage against him. He should be feeling good about that.

Kelly opens his eyes. The engineers are looking at him expectantly. He shrugs and says, "We figured it out, got it done. All part of the Freelancer's job."

Dannik brays a laugh. "So modest. I hope y'all celebrated hard when you got back from that thing!"

Yorinda chuckles. "Might be all in a day's work, but for us grunts on the ground, it's a miracle. We can't thank you Freelancers enough."

You can thank me by stowing your handshakes and getting on with your lives, Kelly thinks. It's been a month since Haluk's strider returned in triumph from the ruins of Freemark. The torrent of congratulations was already pouring in from all corners of Bastion when they wobbled into Fort Tarsis, the ichor of the Monitor coating their battered javelins, the titanic chords of the Anthem ringing in their ears. The sound of the Anthem has faded, but not the congratulations.

The engineers are still nattering above his head. "We heard the news at a waypoint in the mountains, two days out of Fortuo en route to Antium," Yorinda is saying.

"Na, 'twas earlier!" Dannik tsks. "You remember when we crossed the pass, how Ferdows sat up in the middle of dinner? Says something weird's happened, and she got all those pins and needles up her back? I got 'em too, y'know. You --" he gesticulates at Yorinda, narrowly missing Kelly's forehead, "you laughed and said we were all just nervous crossing that ravine. But really, we felt the Cataclysm disappear!"

Yorinda rolls her eyes. "Still, the waypoint was broadcasting the news. When your governor made that announcement, we all stood up and cheered! And since we're stopping here before that last leg to Antium, we wanted to see the heroes what did the deed. I know we're very late. Wasn't sure if we'd find any o' youse, really. Lucky that stallkeeper pointed you out!"

If only they pointed out some other Freelancer from Haluk's strike teams. But all of them have made themselves scarce. Kelly thinks of his fellow squadmate, Mel Mossine. She and her Colossus took a horrific battering as they passed through the Heart of Rage, and her recovery has been slow. Yet each morning, she takes her crutches and hobbles her body down the great strider ramps, to spend all day in the tunnels inspecting the Fort's foundations. Mel is probably down there now, shielded from nosy stallkeepers, fawning civilians, and all this stifling, maddening adoration.

Time to make himself scarce. Aloud, Kelly says, "Thanks. I got a contract waiting. Can't stick around."

They step back, holding up hands like barricades, jabbering, "Of course!—'Lancers are busy, lotsa work to do, Shaper weirdness to silence.—Appreciate the time, just wanted to say thanks for everything.—S'an honour to meet you, sir. 'Strong alone, stronger together,' right? Have a good day!" they call at Kelly's back, as he mounts the platform to his patiently waiting javelin.

He shrugs out of vest and shoes, stows them into his locker next to the launch platform. The interceptor embraces him into its core. All systems check, clear. His travelling backpack is already secured on the javelin frame. He raises a hand to the Forge technician on launch duty.

The sky over Fort Tarsis is blue, speckled with white clouds. The two strider engineers are still watching as Kelly leaps aloft.

On the other side of the great walls, he pauses on an external staging platform to power down his javelin's communications module. His radio systems go mute and deaf. Then he jumps off the platform and falls down the Fort's sheer flank.

For a breath, Kelly hangs suspended in space and time. For an eternal moment, blessed silence.

His javelin gasps, then exhales propulsion in a breathy roar. The flight jets ignite, flinging him toward the rapids that surge from the shining throne of Tarsis and leap down terraces to the jungle below. Kelly kicks his heels, swivels his hips. Spray plumes as he bottoms out just above the water surface. The cliff edge rushes at him; he follows the water over, falls through the foaming curtains of the terraces, and shoots out again into clear air.

Northern Bastion sprawls before him in a tapestry of luscious jungle and proud granite cliffs. Kelly points his head northeast and flies toward the Bowl.

Fort Tarsis and human civilization disappear behind him like waterfall spray. At last. Peace and quiet, at last.