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  They made camp where they parked. With a remarkable levity, the colony leaders embraced in the center of the circle and forgave their tresspasses for the moment in the name of a larger cause. The hybrid colony leaders had seen many battles, more than was reasonable in a single lifetime. It made them both harsh, and gentle. At dusk they gathered in Soraiya’s tent. It was filled with plush cushions and oddly shaped chairs to accommodate the variances in comfortable sitting positions for hybrids. It was difficult indeed to sit in a regular chair with giant metal wings surgically bolted to your bones. The dusty leaders came in and brought with them the gravity of their past, and the torments they endured as imperial slaves and science experiments. Though there was animosity between the colonies, there was also respect. Each of the leaders and all of their constituents came into the world harshly, even without the small comforts available to the worst off like love, affection, gentleness. But it was precisely because of this that the Sikkas had involuntarily created a powerful adversary. 

Kaiya and her friends sat in the periphery, inside the tent but demure, and in awe of each of the hybrids that came through. There were mechanical wonders the likes of which they had never seen, nor could even imagine. Then yet others who looked completely human. Arryn was speaking with one of the leaders who sat in a designated chair near him, inquiring about his colony and his personal capabilities. Kaiya seemed to be getting a lecture from Soraiya on the upcoming meeting. The room filled up and was pulsating with energy as everyone in that room knew what it meant to be there tonight, and how it would change things for them no matter how this ended. As if guided by an invisible command, the room went silent quickly, and Soraiya sat with Kaiya to her right. They looked at her expectantly, taking quick glances at Kaiya and her now faintly glowing right hand. 

“Thank you all for coming. I want to introduce you to Kaiya.” Soraiya nodded to Kaiya who stood up and looked each of the leaders in the eye. 

“Her hand, it bears the marking,” Edge said. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, one hard to believe, like meeting a creature from a fairy tale. The colony leader unconsciously flexed his bionic right arm. It was strong enough to crush a skull. He’d used it in such a way more than once in his arduous life, and even as his strength was leaving him, his arm remained strong so long as it was well taken care of and properly maintained. Though as he got older the weight of the thing began to bear on him like the weight of time.

“You sound as confident as I was when I saw it.” Soraiya asked him in jest.

Kaiya’s hand began to glow more strongly as they all looked at her. She folded over slightly in discomfort. In her head, she felt a swirling mist of voices and phrases. Wran was trying to reach her. Kaiya held on patiently in her mind, trying to clear it with the Drop technique and managed to find a small amount of clarity. And there she heard the words and Kaiya spoke them as they came to hear. 

“The Sikka have heard of the gathering here. Wran asks you to take me to the coast.” Kaiya spoke softly, her eyes still closed. Then she was released from the grip of Wran and focused her eyes at the group. They were silent for a time, unsure of how to react to a strangely received message sent by a god of old through a kid. Shim, and the rest of her friends still had not gotten used to this. Nor had she, truthfully. Shim’s eyes were wide with concern. 

“Then we will take her to the coast.” Soraiya said, looking back and forth between Kaiya and the other leaders to gauge how they were taking this. Do they think it’s a ploy? 

“Leave the Dunes?” Edge asked, others grumbling at the proposal, “We’ve been here for a long time Soraiya, you’re asking us to leave our homes, our way of life here?”

“What life Edge? We trade scraps for food from the very people that tortured us, and turned us into hybrids. We kiss the hand that surgically removed us from our natural selves.”

The leaders erupted in shouts. Kaiya saw how deep this struck into their identity. 

“If you stay here, you’ll be slaughtered,” she continued, “the Sikka already know of the meeting, they know who is still with them. What do you think will happen to the rest of you.”

“We’ve decided nothing, we’ve simply chosen to hear you out,” Edge fired back.

“Will they see it that way?” They wouldn’t and Soraiya knew it, the creased faces struggled as they resigned to agreement in this. They were more than implicated. They were co-conspirators now, and would be killed without mercy by the Sikka whether from an air-strike in the night or a land assault. At best they would no longer be able to trade with their previous captors, and thus have to find a new way to bring resources into the infertile Dunes.

“What of the other colonies?” another Hybrid leader asked. 

“They will be speaking with the Sikkas and taking orders from them. My guess is that they’ll attack straight away,” Soraiya nodded to him in thanks for a decent question.

“Then we leave in the morning,” Edge realized out loud, “and hope they don’t show up in the middle of the night.”

The meeting disbanded. It was settled. They’d leave for the coast in the morning. They roasted a simple stew over the open fires in the center of the camp. It was common for those hybrids who had known each other during Sikka captivity to have joined different colonies depending on when and where they were dumped. The colonies came together, each bringing a bit of their own food and sharing it as a truce. It was never about the differences that caused them to fight, it was the scarce resources. Living in the Dunes was a zero sum game. If someone found a valuable piece of scrap, someone else didn't. If some colony was able to fill the Sikkas order for whatever they needed, then another colony lost. But tonight, as the prospect for prosperity was fresh in their minds, they put transgressions aside, enjoying the meal and the new faces. Living in a colony could also leave one feeling desolate and to find some common ground and some fresh stories energized the whole camp. They spoke of a home they all once had. Some of the childhood they lost. Most hybrids were taken as children from poor families or neighborhoods. Some were born in captivity and never had a life outside of the Imperial holdings where the hybrids-to-be were kept. There was laughter tonight, more than Soraiya could remember hearing at her own dining common. Naturally, fights broke out as they often did even within a colony let alone between them. Not all of them were in anger. The brutal living conditions and life circumstances gave them a warped sense of entertainment. There was history between some of these groups, particularly the ones who shared borders. Despite the mounting anxiety of what the future would bring, and her role in it, Kaiya and her friends felt at ease for the first time in a long time. They looked around at the wondrous mechanical creations caused by a tyrant who controlled an ancient partially sentient being. The night was clear, and the air was warm. Brig was back to telling jokes, and Ayala found her swagger again. They fell right back into the roles they had before any of this started. Kaiya looked at Arryn who seemed to have aged at least a dozen years since they started the journey. His back was straight, though he was at ease, and there was a little earned wisdom in his eyes. In his wildest imagination, he could not have predicted this adventure. He had spent many nights with his friends dying of boredom, and many more nights creating trouble just for entertainment. That was behind him now as he knew the task before them was epic. He had never thought of death before, but the circumstances they found themselves in day after day was a constant reminder. The burning village, his own town burned, the Trackers they’d killed, the ship they’d escaped from. He involuntarily itched wounds from nearly each of those events as he mulled them over in his head. They drank spiced wine here, it was no Hikka, but it soothed him. They all drank a bit too much, enough that they’d have to pay for it in the morning. It was worth it to let the world slip away for a few hours and feel like a kid again. 

In the morning they had a collective parched throat and the heat of the Dunes was a harsh additive to their grogginess. They lumbered through packing up the tents and prepping the trucks for the journey. They were a force to be reckoned with. On this morning, a huge dust plume would arise in the Dunes in unity, larger than any single colony, and it gave the Hybrids pride, to be running with a formidable pack, now armed with a spiritual mission to help fight against tyranny and oppression. Their spirits were so high they questioned why this was never done before, with a force this large they could do significant damage to the Sikka. Perhaps even defeat them. They were still vastly outnumbered and had inferior technology, but they had a mission, and had spent a lifetime fighting dirty in this harsh, infernal landscape. 

Most of the hybrids had never left the Dunes once they were there. To venture outside was to risk too much. Beyond the Dunes, and into the forests, a few of the hybrids would leave every time there was a new dump. They were mostly never seen again. It was said the Sikka hid in the trees surrounding the Dunes to keep the Hybrids caged in. It was, unfortunately, one of those whispers that had an element of truth. Hybrids weren’t common in other parts of the world, except for maybe the Arc. A few hybrids had done quite well for themselves in the Arc. Having learned what to look for in the Dunes, and finding it by either buying it directly from the colonies, or by buying it cheap from another vendor who didn’t know what they had. It was an appealing story, and one many of the colony members dreamt of, or at least convinced themselves it was an option if they ever wanted to leave. Those that did come back told of an even harsher world out there, a world of people who would not accept a hybrid for what had happened to them and found nearly all but the most menial of labor available to make a living. 

Their vehicles caressed the Dunes, loud and clunky but fitting and effective. Each had their eye covers on shielding them from the dust and sand. Kaiya and her friends had high spirits despite the difficulties they knew awaited. It would be several days to get to the part of the forest that would lead them to the area of the coast where Wran told them to go. Kaiya, with the loudness of the moving trucks, drew in a little and contemplated Wran, her hand, and the voices she had heard. The pain in her hand had gone, and now that she knew what it was, it frightened her less. She was still terrified by Wran, and by her role in what was to come, but at least her marking began to make sense to her, even bringing her some degree of refuge. She focused her mind, breathing in all the sounds around her, and let them all go with a deep exhale. For the first time, she tried to reach out to Wran. She whispered her name, and felt something electric respond. It was faint, quiet, distant. Then, nothing. She tried again, starting from scratch, clearing her mind and bringing all her focus to a single water drop falling from her head down to her belly. She called Wran’s name again, and waited patiently. She neither heard nor felt anything. After a few more attempts, she gave it up and shrugged. It seemed the communication wasn’t bi-directional. So be it. Kaiaya wasn’t sure she wanted to be in constant contact with whatever Wran was anyways, and she knew that sometime soon she’d be amongst people who may be able to offer better answers. 

They camped for the night on the sand, with little single and double person tents that rose only slightly off the ground to accommodate a person lying down. The tents were nearly impossible to spot on the open Dunes, even if there were a large number of them. The hybrids would use these when they were out scavenging, to conceal their location from other colonies. The tents  were designed to be buried without sand getting in, and with the winds howling off the Dunes, they knew they’d wake up in the morning covered at more than half way. Most scavenging started by picking a location they hadn’t explored in a while. They had a crude but effective system to ensure they were both staying within their own territory and making sure they didn't waste effort going where someone else in the colony had just gone. Once the destination was chosen,  they’d drive and hide the vehicle and then search in concentric circles until they found all they could transport back. There was little use in putting too much time into sifting through findings save for a cursory look. 

Another day came and went, then another, with nothing but sand and wind. The hot air on their faces as they blazed up and down the dunes. Occasionally they’d come upon a crest that suddenly dropped several feet causing them to launch into the air from their speed. The deep suspension on the trucks absorbed it with ease, though it didn’t help with the feeling of one’s stomach dropping. They stopped only at supply depots along the way, little stations with provisions for the sometimes necessary trip to the Sikka outpost where the sand met the forest. They’d be going straight towards their enemy and their employer. There was no other option. It would have taken them weeks to go around the road and the forest was too dense to travel in the trucks. The outpost was small, and generally staffed as minimally as possible. Soraiya hoped that was still the case as they came closer. It wouldn’t matter much though, with their numbers there was no way the Sikkas would be able to fight them. She had also noticed that she had not seen or heard a single flight over the Dunes, there were near daily trades between the Sikka and the Hybrids, so to not hear one in the few days they’d been out made her worry. She rationalized it away, thinking she may have just missed them or their sound was masked by the roar of hundreds of trucks and enough sand kicked up to make a dune of its own. By mid afternoon they could see the outpost on the horizon. They’d be there by nightfall. 

Crossing the final dune, the trucks stopped near the top to see if the elevation would reveal any new information. Soraiya scanned the treeline that was a stark and abrupt contrast to the red sand. She couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The troop paused for nearly an hour at the top of the hill. The hybrids had pumped themselves up for this adventure and the anxiety was high all around. They were ready for a fight, and patience was running low. Other colony leaders radioed over to Soraiya begging her to head to the outpost before their colonies erupted in a firefight to satisfy the bloodlust they’d instilled into them. Soraiya calmly and patiently waited to see if anything looked out of the ordinary. The outpost had seen them coming for miles, the large plume of sand and dust had given them away. They would have had plenty of time to call for reinforcements, though an attack on the Sikka outpost would be an act of war. It had, to their knowledge, not been done before, or had not been done successfully. Soraiya doubted there were no attempts. The strong willed hybrids had surely tested the Imperial strength a time or two in the past. Perhaps none were successful, and those involved were killed to prevent future encounters, and to scratch the events from the history books. 

Soraiya was finally content. She signalled, and the engines were started once again. They went down the last incline of the Dunes and could feel their trucks hitting solid ground. They’d have to swap their tires out for more normal ones, instead of the paddle wheels they currently used as they made their way to the coast. The warm night air blew hard as they approached the gate. Two Sikkas guards had come out, their guns across their arms ready, but not threatening, and waved them to turn off their engines. The Sikka soldiers looked a little confused at the massive party trying to make it through the gates. 

Soraiya turned off her truck and looked over at Avalon, her right hand man. Avalon was built to be a weapon. Both of his arms had been sheared off at the elbow and replaced with an interchangeable weapons system. It was an early prototype of what some Sikkas still wear into battle today. They form the heart of the imperial guards and are said to guard the Emperor himself. Despite his appendages making it difficult for him to perform pedestrian activities, his gear ran solid, and he’d saved Soraiya and many others in King Sen from some impossible situations. She looked at him as he armed his weapons, nodding to her that he was ready. 

“By the arms of Avalon,” he said, dead serious. 

“You love saying that don’t you,” Soraiya chuckled and stepped out. It was better to be relaxed before a fight.

Soraiya positioned herself right outside the door and then took one step back so that the blasts from Avalon would blow the door right into the guards should they try to pull something. King Sen was prepared for war, and they would not have been surprised if a force was waiting for them here.

The Sikka guards pulled at the radio on their shoulder, relaying to some other station about what they were seeing and who was at the gate. It was hard for them to believe the news of their meeting hadn’t travelled to the outpost. A large colony on the move was not a subtle thing, and not something to ignore when they were looking to leave the playground in which Sikkas tried to keep them. 

“Turn your engines off, all of them,” the Sikka guard told Soraiya. She nodded to Avalon who gave the order over the radio to turn the engines off. Suspicious, but not out of the ordinary. It was loud as hell with all their engines on, perhaps it was just to hear them better. At the command from Avalon, a winged hybrid took off quietly in the dark from the back of the group. She circled wide and high to avoid being seen and crossed over the treeline to take a peek. She slowed down and flew a pattern to see if there was anything waiting for them in the trees. She saw nothing. No more guards in the little outpost, no other lights in the forest, no smells of fire, no trucks. She was returning back when she spotted a small red light. A Sikka soldier had focused his gun and the red laser shot out in the night. 

Soraiya looked at the two soldiers and noticed one of them had unusually shaky hands. It was either alcoholism, or they were hiding something. Suddenly, the winged hybrid darted back towards the two guards and over Soraiya, shouting a warning. As she was just overhead, Avalon heard her warning and radioed it out to the rest of the colony, and simultaneously shot the two guards down who, at this point, had begun pulling their guns up in defense and retreating back to the outpost. In a flash, hordes of Sikkas flew out of the cover of the trees and onto the open sand on the spit of land between the Dunes and the forest. Their red lasers appeared on  trucks and tires, and there were bursts of gunfire. After the initial panic, they started their engines, lowered the cages attached to the tops of the trucks down onto the bumper and began an all out charge at the Sikkas. Hybrids posted in the back of the vehicles were strapped in, allowing them to stand and fire without getting thrown out of the bouncing truck. The haggard metal wedge in the front of the truck struck the first line of Sikkas. They were mowed down like a ship parting water. The trucks were used to being assaulted and held up as valiantly as the Hybrids themselves. 

Kaiya stood in awe and horror at how effective the Hybrids were at killing. Their brutal culture and environment made this relatively open fighting spot a death trap for any of the Sikkas who left the forest even though the Sikka’s guns were superior. When most of the trucks were either actively engaged or rapidly approaching, a huge rumble erupted from the treeline. In the distance to the north and south, vehicles were coming. Other hybrid trucks by the sound of them. Soraiya saw it and knew they were being pinched. The best way out would be through. She radiod to get on the trail past the guard gate and haul ass through the forest. It was a single file road, a further risk, but it appeared the other colonies had decided to flank them. It was a risk she’d have to take. 

A truck battered down the gate and they entered the trail as fast as they could. With such a long procession, Soraiya knew those left in the back would likely not make it. She was right. The incoming trucks arrived, and the real battle began as Soraiya’s group tried desperately to get each truck on the single lane dirt road. They were losing trucks fast. Truck on truck, it was a fair match, but trying to get through a narrow path was damn near suicide. 

The lead truck down the single lane road exploded three cars in front of Kaiya and Soraiya. They skidded to a halt. Avalon was armed and scanning the trees for activity. Both his arms pointed out each window. Kaiya’s heart raced and her hand began to pulse. They arrived from the trees, their locations given away by the sound of their bullets flying at them. Avalon began shooting back, while Soraiya locked the truck into a protection mode generally used for sand storms. The trucks were regularly beat to hell in sand storms. 

The firing started and stopped quickly, as the huge numbers of Hybrids emerged from the trees. They were surrounded by an overwhelming force. Soraiya looked at the carnage. 

“Quickly now, into the cargo hold below.” Soraiya whispered to Kaiya and Shim. She eyed the compartment and Kaiya opened it. There was only room for two. They got into the cargo hold and the lid was shut on them. During the intense silence, the rest of the crew shuffled out of the car and surrendered. The Sikka came up to the car and poked around. Shim and Kaiya stared at each other as the boots on top of them shuffled around the truck. The guard banged on a few areas and seemed satisfied. They heard the soldier yell ‘clear’ as he exited the truck and got back into formation.

“Which one of you is Kaiya,”  the squad leader asked. 

“I am,” Ayala said, much to her friend’s surprise. 

Petr, Arryn, and Ayala were taken by the Sikka group and the sound of helicopters whirring to life. The Sikkas were leaving. They had come for Kaiya and had gotten her. Without her there was no basis for an uprising. Live and let live. The rest was up to their loyal allies. None of the Hybrids seemed to take a second look at Ayala. Perhaps they had just been too far away during the ceremony to see her. It was pure luck that Ayala got away with the impersonation. Avalon, and Soraiya were secured right near the truck by the hybrids. Soraiya and Avalon sat quietly, whispering to each other as quickly and quietly as they could. Securing hybrids wasn’t as easy as securing regular people. The Hybrids that secured them should have known better, though they rarely took prisoners. Simply binding the hands and feet wouldn’t necessarily work for each hybrid as their tools and capabilities were sometimes difficult to deduce from their outward appearance. The helicopter presumably carrying her friends took off overhead as did several others carrying the rest of the Sikka soldiers, leaving only the hybrids behind. Inside the cargo container, Kaiya’s hand pulsed, and she shouted in agony at the sudden burst of pain. The pulses came in waves, and her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Shim was terrified as Kaiya began having an episode. Shim quickly lifted the lid open and dragged Kaiya out of the truck, much to the surprise of the soldiers. On top of all the blood and death in the past few minutes, now Kaiya was unreachable too. Selfishly, Shim felt alone, then snapped out of it and tried to help Kaiya get comfortable. Kaiya reached out and touched one of the hybrids trying to secure her. Sparks flew from his bionic arm and he collapsed. Kaiya’s vision returned and she got up, stood tall, opening her palm to the ground. The ground gently shifted, and faint green threads began coming up out of the ground like roots towards Kaiya’s hand. When they touched, Kaiya closed her palm around them and ripped at the ground. The hybrids shot up in sparks and collapsed. The trucks caught fire. The air grew still. Kaiya collapsed to the ground, the green strands of pulsating light returning to the Earth. Shim stood and looked around at the quiet forest, and all the fallen hybrids around them. She grabbed Kaiya, lugged her over her shoulder and began walking on the edge of the single dirt road that led to the coast.