Chapter 1—Three Weeks
With noble goal we walk the streets.
With noble heart we uphold peace.
With noble zeal we combat threats.
All storms of war will cease.
—The Sentinel’s Call
Ka-thump. Ka-thump. Ka-thump.
The hollow pounding resonated from the Sentinel’s chest up into his head. For just a moment, everything around him was alien and alarming. The colors and smells, the moving figures and sounds, all clashing against him in uneven ripples. Nothing made sense.
Two small beings shuffled up the strip of concrete heading in his direction, delicate, miniature versions of humans. His arm began to rise, and his fingers extended toward them as if to point, the silver white color of his armor shimmered and darkened. Flashes of images and thought jabbed across his consciousness in a confusing swirl. Crayons scratching on yellow paper. Dark metal arms slicing through the air. Wailing voices. Base notes in agitated rhythms. Voices and cries. Come back. Go away. Fear. Fury.
I have eyes, he thought, as he scanned around him slowly, reconnecting with the present world and its inhabitants again, pushing against the disorientation and confusion.
Eyes are the link, he added, remembering that he had two means of communication with the beings. Words and eyes. Information was traded with words. Eyes could… he wasn’t sure what they did. He gathered visual data, but communication, how was that done and why did he think this way? His eyes saw, but no links were made, and the result was pain in his torso.
Deep within, the Indoctriny surged, quieting the chaos in his mind, relieving him of the clashing and thumping. Quiet fell in the chambers of his body, in his mind, in his innermost center. For a moment, anguish hung there in the emptiness, loneliness too deep to face, a wordless sorrow. It sat there in the center, soaking up the noise until it had ended, then it sunk within him. Deeper than awareness, deeper than feeling, deeper than the state of being he recognized as life.
In its place, happiness stirred, and his arm lowered back to his side. As the Indoctriny restored him, he forgot that he had felt anything at all. He remembered his name and readdressed his present assignment with joy.
Kierkad continued down the sidewalk at a steady, smooth tempo, a musical meter suitable for Sousa. His joints were warm, his limbs fluid, his movements effortless. He turned his head to one side and then the other, surveying his route with pride.
The two children walked toward him, their hair blowing gently as they moved, their clothes swishing, their shoes making soft whispery noises.
He smiled at them. I am your peace, he thought, as he nodded slightly. Be at ease.
The smaller one, a younger sister perhaps, lifted her eyes to his face, and smiled faintly. But the other one had noticed the uplifted arm Kierkad had now forgotten.
Kierkad paused and leaned toward them. His presence instilled comfort, he knew this, yet the older one looked afraid. Her eyes widened, her pupils constricted, her face taut. “You are safe,” he reassured her. “I am here and there is nothing to fear.” His words only distressed her more. She yanked on her younger sister’s hand and pulled her sideways around him, moving quickly in little sidesteps. It pierced him with concern.
“I am good,” he said, his voice conveying none of the anxiety her look caused. “I will take care of your neighborhood and all of you. My life is devoted to this and I will not fail you.”
They fled. He turned and watched them over his shoulder as they ran.
It hadn’t always been this way. When he had first been assigned to the Valley of Gentle Hearts, the people had followed his regular patrols with glistening eyes full of hope, waving, even blowing him kisses. Children had come to him with flowers and cards. Adults had stopped to thank him and shake his hand. He had been one of the deliverers.
Now, they feared him. It wasn’t right. I have been your hope, he thought, wondering if his eyes were able to portray hurt feelings. Was his armor human enough? Was his face expressive through the transparent mask? He didn’t know. There were no mirrors at the Harbor and when he looked in them at other places, he didn’t know how to interpret what he saw. A man shaped figure with man eyes and man movements. It meant nothing.
“We are glad you’re here, Sentinel,” a woman with a leather bag over her shoulder paused near him. “The children don’t understand. They never saw what it was like before. Now, with the Cascade and all, they’re just frightened by whatever seems… out of place.” She nodded and walked away not waiting for a reply.
He watched her. An instantaneous scan brought up her identity and history, more about her than she knew herself, but none of it mattered in his foremost thoughts. He could only allow certain facts to rest there. This legal office person was a distraction.
Her words, though, were helpful. I should not mind the children’s fear or need the woman’s explanation, he reprimanded himself. I am selfless and noble. I am here for their good, even if they don’t understand. I love them and will always love them. This is who I am.
A soul full of purpose kept him mentally ready for the next assault. The body wasn’t a problem. He could always count on the strength and drive he needed to battle any enemy and overcome any obstacle. The Harbor existed to keep him and his brothers in perfect working order.
Kierkad began his march again, humming inside his mask at a pitch only he could hear, walking in the steady pace that fit the music, smiling as he scanned the streets, sidewalks, yards, parks, and houses on his path. He would guard his people and if he died in the process, another noble one like himself would take his place.
The Harbor, the massive compound that housed the Sentinels, was firmly planted in a vast space along the Brave River, glowing with light, like a beacon of promise. Kierkad’s heart swelled with pride and joy as he spied it in the distance. It was his home and refuge—not that he needed one so elaborate, but it was given to him all the same.
He had no memory of the life he had lived before. When he had given up his former self to become a Sentinel, he had given up everythingand only a clean wipe made that possible. The rumors about his background rolled around the valley as people wondered what planet he came from, what species he was, what his native language had been, what his real features were like. These rumors captivated him as much as they did the people. He toyed with them and laughed at them. He shared the most outlandish ones with his brothers. They were in it together. It was good.
The alarms equipped in his faceshield began wailing, starting with a deep, low-decibel base note and rising quickly in pitch to a pure-toned high note that broke into staccato dashes. As soon as the note struck twelve times, the base note began again, almost inaudibly.
Kirkad ran. He carried emergency gear, but it was better if he could get to his pod and search from there. Within three alarms he had reached where it was parked at the end of the street and dived in, in one seamless motion, turning as he arced to fall into the scooped chair molded for his body. The door sealed behind him and the pod throbbed as he powered up. His mind vaulted into the skies as a winged sensor took off from the top of the pod, a meter-long, ultra-thin boomerang shaped drone—his avatar, his alter-ego, his flying self.
Up into the clouds he soared, no longer aware of the clunky earth form deposited in the pod. Frrrrrinnnngggg! His bladed wings vibrated in a metallic hum as he sped upward. Seconds counted. The faster the response, the better the chance that the Cascade would be countered in time, and lives would be spared. Not civilian lives, there had never actually been any deaths among the helpless citizenry. The Sentinels were good at what they did and had a perfect record of protection, even from the first days of the invasion.
The loss of Sentinels was the key danger. And the more that perished, the higher the chance that one day the Cascade would break through their defenses and decimate the peaceful population. Or an invading force returned from the old adversary.
The earth was a checkerboard of fields and neighborhoods now as he blasted his way higher and higher into the stratosphere. Still no visible floats.
The humming of other Sentinels aloft in their avatars began to fill his ears. Many of his brothers were being added to the fight, building a crescendo of counterforce, striving against gravity to reach the enemy who merely had to fall to reach the target.
There! Light glanced off one like a sparkle of sunlight on lapping water. Then another… and another. Soon the sparkles were flickering all around Kierkad and his brothers on every side. It was a massive fall with thousands of flimsy, jellyfish-bodied traps wafting down.
They were easy to destroy. That wasn’t the problem. But there were so many of them and not one could be allowed to touch the ground. The winged avatars screamed through the skies, back and forth, all over, slashing them into shreds with a mere passing through them, slicing them with the edge of the wings. The chip they carried would never make it to the surface intact.
Sunlight gleamed golden on the Sentinel drones like flame, brilliant and beautiful against the semi-darkened blue sky, like flashes of gilded lightning painted in broad strokes on the background of floating sparks.
Kierkad kept count. Twenty. Forty. Sixty. It was easier to flame through many in the beginning. When they grew sparse, it was harder to catch or even see them, and the numbers he destroyed added up more slowly.
On the ground, he could still experience motion. He felt his pod shake and thud as he jumped, jolted, jerked to the right or the left, unable to separate the movement of the drone from the action of his body. He was sweating and his heart was pounding in his chest.
“Auugghhh!” he yelled involuntarily as his winged drone sliced into that of another brother, like swords clashing, hooking, and sliding to the hilts in a fencing match. Metallic rings and crunches blasted through his skull for several split seconds then they flung themselves free and Kierkad whipped away, spinning and falling, falling, falling. The earth enlarged and raced to slam into him as he moaned, dazed and blinking. “No!” he exhorted himself, pulling up on the controls, willing the craft to accelerate out of the dive.
The wings vibrated and strobed him with loud shrieks as he fought to regain control. He could see nothing anymore but stabs of light and dark, shaking violently until an explosion rent his ears. Not the full impact of noise, the pod dulled it enough to spare his hearing, but enough to give him understanding of the craft’s demise. It had autodestructed to avoid causing damage on impact.
He opened his eyes as the pod door swung out, noticing as he always did that climbing out was nothing like jumping in. His body was trembling, and his legs were unsteady. His vision blurred as he blinked repeatedly. Around the pod, bystanders stood in scattered groups watching him. He was unable to read their expressions. That part of his brain function would return when he had had time to recoup at the base.
Once his feet were placed on the ground, he leaned onto the roof of the pod and took deep breaths to steady himself. His audio was giving him updates as he waited.
“…seventeen more floats flamed… two brothers out of play… twenty-three floats destroyed… searching… searching… three floats identified… two more floats detected… searching… searching… none detected… confirmed: all eliminated…”
The voice never announced how many brothers were lost till later, in the safety of the Harbor.
“The danger is over,” Kierkad turned and informed the bystanders. Some sighed in visible relief. Others merely nodded and turned to go. A few children were scattered among them, clinging to the hands of adults or friends, staring at him with large eyes. He wondered if they were associating him with the danger instead of the protection. The look in their eyes was confusing and he never remembered to ask what it meant once he was restored to full function.
The patrol he had begun would be finished by a fresh Sentinel. His strength was spent, and he had to get back to base before he collapsed. Losing an avatar was particularly weakening and the feeling of helplessness at having no means to fight brought with it a heavy sense of dread.
Kierkad climbed back into the pod and hit the auto-sequence for home, then closed his eyes, clinging fiercely to the armrests, and compelled himself to remain calm till he could be re-stabilized. He felt sick. Down to his bones.
In the Harbor, the pod slotted into park and he was lifted out by the robotic restorators. He had watched them retrieve other brothers and knew that sometimes they moaned or even made sounds like weeping. Some thrashed and fought the care as though they had forgotten it was vital to their health. He was unaware of any noise or movement on his own part and wondered distractedly if he were resisting in some way. His mind seemed to have withdrawn from the surroundings; they were foggy and muffled, far away, dreamlike.
On one side, he saw and heard the activity of the restorators, snapping him into the gurney, carting him along, attaching tubes, clicking buttons on his faceshield. On the other, darkness—quiet, warm, safe—beckoned and wooed him. He turned toward it and let it envelope him.
“Rise up, Noble Sentinel,” the restorator greeted him.
Kierkad’s heart swelled with pride as he swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up. I am noble, he remembered with a surge of joy in his chest, I have battled and survived. Once again, I rise up to defend those I love.
“I am well,” he responded, turning to gaze at the robot that stared at him with a mild, featureless face.
Stretching out an arm, he extended and flexed his fingers, rotating the hand as he tested them. They worked flawlessly, joints fluid, tendons strong, muscles elastic. On the inside of his wrist, the emblem of the Sentinel, etched in black, rippled gently with the motion of his fingers.
Sometimes, he would stare at it. Alone at night in his bunk, he would pull up his sleeve and stare at the place where he knew it to be, as though communing with it, melding his mind with it. And he would imagine that it glowed in a deep, blueish hue, humming. He would hum with it, not aloud, but in his mind. There, he would think to himself. There I am.
But now, in full light of day, this seemed childish and distant. He clapped his hands onto the cot on either side of him and with a light push, jumped to his feet, standing.
“Kierkad, Sentinel Kan-B-49-L-16, reporting,” he announced, “Ready for duty.” He pulled himself upright, tightening with a snap, an immovable pillar of solidity, arms at his side, feet together, eyes forward.
“You are released,” the restorator replied.
Breaking into a trot, Kierkad sped out the door.
A roar of voices greeted him as he entered the mess. Clashing sounds echoed as he slammed his forearm against a brother’s forearm, then another and another, a loud cacophony of cheerfulness, anchoring the assurance of belonging—of home. This was his place. He was a hero. They were all there to be noble, and it was good.
“What?” Sedakad hollered at him, slamming both forearms against his, then banging him with his head and grabbing his shoulders with both hands. “Cutting me out of the sky?”
“Was it you?” Kierkad laughed and punched his stomach with both fists. They roared and threw a few more punches.
“You anarchist!” his brother stepped away, leaning backward slightly, as if overcome with laughter, without the sound of it. “You’re going to get a bad name if you keep that up!”
“Me?” Kierkad leaned over resting his hands on his knees, acting tired, which he wasn’t, watching for the next move. “You knocked me out of the sky, and I had to autodestruct. I’ll be out of commission till I get a new drone. You’re the anarchist!”
“You slammed me—and I autodestructed long before you did, Kier,” he lunged and Kierkad caught him in a hug as they toppled over, yelling, rolling around.
“Sentinels,” the somber voice emanated through the hall. The lights dimmed and brightened three times and all the brothers rose to attention.
Kierkad and Sedakad jumped to their feet, pulling each other up, and stood side by side.
Pacificator Nirekad, robed to his feet in black trimmed in deep blue, strode into the hall with a calm humility that belied the palpable air of authority. More than respected, he was loved and feared by the brothers.
“Well done, Sentinels,” he said, his words stirring pride in every listening heart. “You have won the battle. Every float of the Cascade was destroyed before touching the ground.”
He paused. The emotion the news caused rolled around them as if they had applauded, though they made no sound.
“Two brothers collided mid-air,” a murmured groan was heard on many sides. “You should all be commended for your flying. These instances are very rare and can happen to anyone. Let no one curse the brothers who were thus cut down, mid-battle, and unable to finish. The disappointment is rebuke enough.”
He turned and let his gaze fall on the two brothers. Kierkad trembled inside and was glad his eyes were tearless. Grief over the disappointment flooded him.
“These are noble brothers who have done well,” the Pacificator continued and Kierkad’s heart soared at the reprieve. “Tomorrow,” he added, turning away to look around at the others, “it may be one of you. And we will not shame you for something you did not seek out.”
The entire hall grew lighter.
“Some of you are missing…” Pacificator Nirekad raised his voice. Many of the brothers hung their heads. Some folded their arms across their chests and stared off to the side. A few mumbled. Kierkad’s heart sunk as he waited for the rest of the report.
“Brothers Uyalkad, Traekad, Perakad, Chordkad, Malikad, Gankad…”
“No!” One of the listeners called out. “Not Gankad! My brother!”
“Erdakad, Weirkad…” Several more voices complained.
The list went on. Twenty-three brothers were MIA.
Experience had proven that they would never be retrieved.
“As you know well,” the Pacificator concluded, “These brothers have given their lives for a noble cause… as have you. They are missed but their memories are exalted. We have not yet obtained their bodies, and therefore we hope—we continue to hope, that some may yet be found alive.”
He paused as the barely tangible hope sunk into their understanding and faded away without finding roots.
“We have an even greater hope that we will decipher the Cascade’s methods and counter them. We will learn to anticipate their attacks. We will one day launch an assault on theirbases and wipe them out at the source. We will eliminate this threat once and for all. Never again will our planet be threatened by invasion.”
He stood at the center of the hall, turning slowly on his feet as he spoke, touching each one with his gaze, pulling them together, strengthening their hope and resolve.
“We have an even greater hope than this,” he said. “We will uphold the noble realm for all humans. We will live nobly and with honor. We will grant our beloved flock, our human children, our treasure, a home that is safe, without danger or suffering or hardship, and they will never again shed a tear and their children will not know the meaning of the word ‘fear’…”
The brothers were moved. Each one had given themselves freely to this vision. They loved the humans in their care, their flock.
“You are noble,” he said.
“We are noble,” they thundered in one voice.
“You are guardians of the realm,” he said.
“We are Sentinels,” they boomed as one.
“You are not loved but you love.”
“We love the people.”
“You will live for them.”
“And we will die for them!”
“You are noble.”
“We are noble! We live for the noble realm!”
Silence in the wake of these shouts felt like noise of an opposite quality. Pacificator Nirekad turned and walked out of the hall. Behind, the brothers relaxed and went back to their meal.
Kierkad and Sedakad sat next to one another. Food was placed before them by the mess hall droid. It was bland and satisfying. Food was never anything else.
“I don’t understand,” Sedakad murmured between bites.
Kierkad glanced at him sideways. They weren’t kept from speaking about these things, but it was discouraged in an unspoken way, the way all their behavior was guided, through unseen pushes, motivating, resisting, accepting, deterring. Kier knew that for Sedakad to speak those words, he had to lean against the compulsion he felt to not say them.
“How does the Cascade…” he fell silent. He must’ve been daunted by the resistance.
Kierkad looked back down at his food. He wondered, too. How did the Cascade decide when and where to attack? What was it? What was the point? Why did they look so harmless and yet cause so much damage?
There were many questions.
Sedakad clenched his jaw for a moment. “Why…” he growled through gritted teeth, “do they…” Long, awkward pauses punctuated the rest. “…go after… us? …and… what happens to… the brothers… they… they… they…” He began choking.
Someone grabbed him from behind and with a thrust of his fist against his chest, popped a piece of food out of his throat. He gasped and spit it out onto his plate. Looking over at Kierkad, he squinted in anger, glared at him.
“You’re alright,” someone said.
Sedakad shook his head vehemently, but what came out was, “Yes.” Then he walked away.
Kierkad didn’t watch him leave but he felt a twinge of secret guilt toward him. Guilt was not encouraged. More than that, it didn’t seem to exist among them, though the word was known. It was used in training sessions to help them understand the people they protected. It was never included in their home at the Harbor.
But he felt it and covered it up. Seda had tried to talk to him. For a moment they had been closer to each other than to the other brothers, sharing the mishap. The momentary reproof had given them something unique in common. And at that moment, Seda had reached out with a burden he was tired of carrying. Kier carried it too. They all did. What did it matter if they talked about it to each other?
Somehow, the code of the Sentinels kept them silent. They couldn’t speak of their concerns or doubts. Their questions had to be kept in, waiting for answers, perhaps never to be answered.
Sedakad had struggled to voice one, reaching out for help, and Kierkad had let him flounder and offered him nothing.
If you ignore the hand stretched out to you, the code said, one day you will reach out and be ignored.
Suppression had kept him from responding but he might one day regret it.
Watch for chapter 2 in a future post.
Preorder ROGUE SKIES for the complete book.
“Cascade” by Suzanne Hagelin is one of a two book set. The second book, “Eclipse”, will be released this fall.