BEACON #20

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She next shone her light on a nearby carving of a Neighbor on its knees while another stood behind it with a knife. “Is it being… executed?” Amalek asked with a frown.

“That was my first thought too. But no. That’s not a weapon- it’s a ritual dagger.” Chryse shone the light at the head of the kneeling Neighbor. “Look, its ears have been removed. And if you look back at the first carving, the ones kneeling closest to the podium are similarly missing their ears.”

“Ritualistic self-mutilation,” said Amalek. “I imagine they wouldn’t do that normally?”

“They would not.” Chryse shone her flashlight on a third drawing. Two Neighbors, one atop the other, their snouts touching. A robed Neighbor stood behind them, observing. “There are over a hundred carvings, but these three were the most interesting to me. This is a drawing of reproduction- the one on top is fertilizing the one beneath.” Her voice was breathy and far-away.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Sheba.

Chryse shot her a glance. “Ropinqa… ah… don’t have a concept of consent,” she said. “Reproduction is a battle for dominance for them, everything is. But here… there’s no violence. Both parties are willing, because they’re being instructed by the priest. I have occasionally observed consensual sex between Ropinqa before, but when combined with these other engravings…”

“Something fucky is going on here,” said Sheba. “This doesn’t add up. The defenders at the citadel, they were perfectly ordinary.”

“Were they?” Amalek had his hand on his chin and his eyes on the floor. “Mostly, yes… but didn’t they seem poorly-armed and equipped? Didn’t we beat them a bit too easily?”

Sheba nodded. “I thought that too,” she said. “Thought we caught them off-guard… but they could have also been weakened already.”

“And the defenses around the citadel. They weren’t facing southwest, towards the frontier. They were facing northeast, towards the mountain. Towards this very mesa.” Amalek swallowed dryly. “Could there be multiple Neighbor factions fighting on this planet? The ordinary ones we’re used to and this… cult?”

“It’s very possible… Ropinqa factions are constantly at war with one another. It’s one of the reasons why BEACON has been so successful against them: they once outnumbered us a thousand to one, but we fought with unity while they could not coordinate their massive numbers and amazing technology.” Chryse glanced at the engravings. “I’ve just never seen this behavior before.”

Herod stared at the multitude of engravings. The longer she looked, the more she found them loathsome. Ordinary Neighbors were bad enough, slithering and unctuous monsters. These carvings suggested something vaguely resembling humanity… but that touch of empathy only served to accentuate how fundamentally wretched the monsters were.

The Neighbors couldn’t help being born monsters. But a monster should not wear the skin of a real person.

“Legata, we’ve secured the Mater and her retinue,” Herod said to Lucifera, who hadn’t said a word since they came in. “Shall we return topside?”

“I need another hour or two,” said Chryse. “Once I finish my notation, we can-”

A siren filled the tunnel, the shriek bouncing off the walls and drowning out all other noise. An urgent-priority message… only a colonel or higher could send one of those. Lucifera silenced it with a press of her watch. “Tamar, what’s going on?” she asked in the colonels’ frequency.

“We’re fucked, that’s what’s up!” the voice of Tamar yelled back. “We’ve got an entire air cavalry bearing down on our heads! Thousands! We’re surrounded!”

“Fuck,” Lucifera groaned. “We’re on our way.”

“Hurry! They’re moving in and- shit! I gotta go! Over and out!”

There were no words. The expeditionary force turned around and rushed topside as fast as their feet would carry them. They dashed madly to the tunnel entrance and ran out into hell.

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BEACON #19

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“The quiet woman with us is Chryse,” Fail-Not said. “She’s a LUX Senior Fellow- one of the foremost xenopologists in all of TORCH. She primarily studies the Neighbors.”

“Hello,” said the woman to Anna’s left. Anna was lean and Fail-Not skinny, but Chryse was full-figured and rotund. Her small eyes glimmered with something strange from behind her spectacles. She didn’t wear any armor, rather she was clad in durable canvas clothes. A major risk indeed, although a scientist wouldn’t know how to pilot an AEGIS.

“She doesn’t talk much,” said Anna, “but she’s great at what she does. Don’t pay her too much mind, she’s focused on her research.”

“Why’d you bring her?” Lucifera asked.

Chryse shifted her weight uncomfortably and stared at the floor. “Interesting phenomena on this planet.” Her voice was soft and thin.

“Any particular reason why you brought a scientist into a warzone?” said Amalek, who along with Zabda had come to the front to join them. “Mater. Colonel Amalek Kavod.”

Anna grinned enthusiastically. “Kavod! Sapiens, I haven’t seen one of you in foreeever. You look just like Ziklag Kavod. He had bright red hair, though. Yours is the same as Fail-Not’s.”

Amalek blinked stupidly. “You… knew Ziklag?”

“Knew him? I worked side-by-side with him for years! He tended to draw a lot of attention to himself… the only male on Astra’s entire executive committee. He might have even succeeded Astra instead of Grace, were it not for that thing between his legs.” Her smile flickered for just a moment. “But that was so, so long ago- before there was even a TORCH. You look exactly the same as him, down to that big ole chip on your shoulder.”

“I don’t have a chip-” Amalek stopped himself. “You didn’t answer my question, Mater.”

“So I didn’t.” Anna turned around. “Chryse, mind briefing the legata and her staff on what we’ve found? That should take care of most of their annoying questions.”

“Yes Anna,” said Chryse obediently. “But it’d be easier to demonstrate. Legata, would you and your commanders follow me?”

“Sure. Uhhh, Sheba, come here,” Lucifera said into her watch. Tamar and Ruth had remained topside.

The legata, two of her colonels, and her corporal bodyguard followed Chryse over to one of the walls at the back of the chamber. “It’s very subtle,” Chryse said, pointing her light at the the wall, “to the point that you wouldn’t notice it. But the moment the ground curves downward, the room also widens and widens. This tunnel complex has a hub- and we’re standing in it.”

The walls were covered in painted carvings: hundreds of them, too many scenes for Herod’s eyes to follow all at once. They all depicted tall, skinny, long-necked creatures- Neighbors- in a variety of scenes.

“My area of study is the Ropinqa,” said Chryse. She straightened out her posture and squared her shoulders… at last, she was back in her element. “You call them Neighbors or Romeos. A-as soldiers, your primary concern is how best to fight and kill them… but I seek to understand the way they think and behave.” She couldn’t fully suppress the bitterness in her voice. “I-I have never seen carvings like these before.”

“I’ve never seen Romeo art before,” said Amalek wondrously. “The lizards don’t seem to have much of a mind for beauty.”

Chryse nodded in almost worshipful fascination. “They are far more utilitarian than us… usually. Um, so that’s the first strange thing. Art for art’s sake is… much rarer among their kind.”

She shined her light on one of the scenes. A Neighbor wearing a skirt and cape standing on an elevated platform. A few dozen others surrounded it, kneeling in prostration. “Ropinqa culture is high individualistic. Mass action is only observed with the promise of money, prestige, a choice of mates… they don’t have cults of personality or spiritual leaders. A Ropinqa is loyal to themselves, their close blood relatives, material gain. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our ideals hold little sway with them. Mass action comes at the doing of some exceptional Ropinqa who cultivates admiration for their abilities. Which makes this engraving truly baffling.”

“They’re… worshipping,” said Sheba, her lip curled in disgust. “The one in the middle is a… god or a prophet or something.”

“Those clothes are not known to me,” said Chryse softly. “I’ve been to twenty different Ropinqa-occupied worlds, including their homeworld. Never once have I seen them wear such garments. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to ascertain what is being worshipped. But yes, it seems religious in nature- we don’t understand their faith well, but we’ve never seen this type of behavior before.”

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