We are so, so close to the end of Flickering Lights.
If you have fallen behind, you can go get caught up here.
Here is Flickering Lights 9: Whatever It Takes.
The last Antigone Bay beacon slipped into the already cramped pod.
There were eleven of them, their light soft and steady, filling the pod in a comforting way. It had taken almost four hours for them to gather because they had to be sneaky when they met, something about sepios and curfews. The blinds were tightly drawn, trapping their light inside. Their genius plan was to pray, and Marcus was antsy, shifting around a couple times a minute.
But Hermes said he would be praying, and that meant something. At least, it meant something if he was still alive. Until he could think of something better, Marcus would let them pray.
While they had waited for everyone to arrive, Cara, the beacon whose light he had first seen, had shown him a map of Antigone Bay. It was built more like a small city than a compound, and the pod they had gathered in was only a few small blocks away from the sepios headquarters.
“All right, all right.” This came from Terry, the leader of the tiny Antigone Bay highlight. “I know that it’s dangerous for us to meet like this, but this is an emergency. This is Marcus.” Terry pulled Marcus over to stand beside him. “He’s on his way to Pollux with two beacons, a Hermes and a Penelope. They’ve been arrested and are carrying an important message to Pollux. I’ve called you all here so that we can pray for them, for El Roi to intervene and get them out of sepio custody and back on their way to Pollux. Once they’re out of the sepios’ hands, I’ll get them onto my boat, and we’ll head up to Pollux.”
“Oh.” Marcus ran a hand over his head. “The sepios broke one of Penelope’s legs, too.”
A wave of “oh’s” rippled through the group, and Terry folded his hands. “Let’s gather up and pray.” Before Marcus had a chance to extricate himself, the beacons were pressing together, putting their arms around each other’s shoulders until they formed a tight circle. As in, no personal space. At all. Marcus found himself wedged between Terry and Cara. Everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes, but Marcus glanced around
“El Roi.” Terry’s voice was quiet. “I thank You that everyone made it here safely and that You gave us this opportunity to gather together.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. This opportunity? This is an opportunity? What?
“Our brother and sister, Hermes and Penelope, need You to show Yourself. The message that Hermes carries is Yours, and You can see it through to Pollux. Please protect them, and please get them out somehow.”
And so it went around and around and around for over an hour. The beacons took turns praying, each a similar prayer, but with different specifics. One beacon prayed for Penelope and her leg. Another prayed for Marcus. Another prayed that the letter to the highlight at Pollux would be undamaged. Another prayed that Hermes and Penelope would use this opportunity to shine light to the sepios.
The earnestness in their prayers, the excitement of just talking to El Roi, the way they thought, it all made Marcus curious. If this was what it was to be a beacon, if this is what it was supposed to be like, the communion and peace and intense love… why not? He shifted, his legs threatening to cramp from standing in the same position.
He saw the fire before he heard the boom.
Orange-red light flared through the blinds, and then a blast shook the ground. There was a split second of stillness before the beacons burst into confusion. Marcus snatched up Winston and shoved his way to the door. Terry’s voice knifed through the chaos. “Everyone, calm down! We don’t know what’s happened, but we’re going to find out and help where we can. Cara, get your med kit. Leila, go get as many blankets as you can. Marcus and Lenard, you go with her.”
Marcus shook his head, his hand on the door handle. “No. That explosion is in the direction of the sepios headquarters. I’m going there.”
Terry hesitated before nodding. “All right. Rob and Lenard, you go with Leila then. Everyone else, come with me.”
Marcus shouldered his pack and stepped out of the pod. Heat hit his face.
Horrible, oxygen devouring fire.
The beacons split up, and Marcus followed the group heading for the fire. He jogged to catch up with the leader of the highlight. “Do you have any idea why someone would blow up something in Antigone Bay?”
A frown twisted Terry’s face. “It’s probably the same terrorists who blew up the communications station. They’ve been getting bolder, worse since we lost communication with the three cities. The sepios have kept up some communication via hovers, but it’s still not enough. They’ve gotten very strict recently, the sepios here.”
They rounded a corner and stopped. Flames caressed the sky, and there was a hole in the side of the expansive sepios headquarters. Some sepios staggered around, others dumped water on the fire, and others were dead. Terry barked out some orders, and the beacons dragged the wounded away from the fire. Cara unpacked her med kit and started treating those she could. Weird beacons, helping the sepios.
Marcus rubbed his forehead and popped his nocturnals. He could help the beacons help the sepios. Or he could run into the burning headquarters and try to find Hermes and Penelope. He swung his pack to the ground and pulled out the oxygen tank. He popped the respirator in his mouth and shoved Winston into his pack. He glanced up at the flaming hole in the wall of the headquarters. Don’t think about it, Marcus. Just go.
He glanced at the beacons. They worked hard with the sepios. He pushed his pack over by the wall. Whatever it takes, Marcus. Go.
He burst out at a run. Heat scorched his legs as he leapt into the building. He hit the ground in a roll, almost dropping the oxygen tank as he somersaulted through a patch of flames.
Smoke coiled through the air, but his nocturnals protected his eyes. Fire slapped him, but then he was staggering out of the blaze.
He jogged further into the headquarters, putting some distance between himself and the flames. Once he could no longer see the orange light, he doubled over, sucking in oxygen desperately. The world dipped, and he leaned against the wall. After a few moments, his head cleared as he inhaled more oxygen.
Find them. Go. He pushed off from the wall and staggered forward. The sounds of fire faded as he lurched further into the sepios headquarters.
In the end, he was never certain how he managed to stumble through the right hallways, but just as he heard gunfire, he saw a glimmer of light. He took a breath of oxygen and surged forward. Shouts followed the staccato of gunshots, and he rounded a corner to find light streaming through small windows on two doors.
Marcus fell against the first door, peering through the window. Penelope was prone on a small cot, unmoving, and her left leg jutted out at an unnatural angle. Furious fire flashed through Marcus, and he punched the door.
His breath came in angry gasps as he moved to the next door. Hermes was sitting on the floor, legs sprawled out, back against the wall, still in the clothes he had been wearing when the sepios arrested him, alive. He was alive. The relief was almost painful as Marcus smacked the glass with his palm. Hermes looked up, and after a moment, a smile crept across his features. He shoved off the ground and wobbled over to the window.
Blood matted Hermes’s hair, and bruises colored his face. One greenish eye was swollen shut. Hermes pressed his face against the window, as if he was having a hard time standing on his own. He was trying to say something, but the glass was too thick.
Marcus shook his head and pointed to his ears. The window fogged when Hermes sighed. The pops and bangs from guns rang out like bursts of anger. Hermes tapped the glass and held up three fingers, then seven.
Marcus shook his head again. “I don’t understand.”
Hermes sighed again and pointed down. Marcus followed his finger. There was a number pad on Hermes’s cell door. Hermes held up three fingers again. Marcus lurched forward and pressed the three on the pad. Hermes held up seven fingers. Marcus punched the seven. Hermes gave a five. Five. Two. One. One. Three again. Hermes nodded, and Marcus hit enter. The lock clicked and Marcus yanked the door open. Hermes almost fell, but Marcus caught him and lowered him to the floor against the wall.
“Hermes!” Marcus squeezed his shoulder. “Hermes!”
Hermes’s eyes opened, but only a little.
“Here.” Marcus pushed the oxygen respirator between Hermes’s lips. It took less than a minute for Hermes to sit up on his own, his strength coming back with every breath of pure oxygen until he stood. “We have to help Penelope.”
Marcus scrambled after him. “How did you know the code to your cell?”
Hermes smiled and grimaced and then groaned. “It hurts to smile right now. Anyway, I was mostly conscious when we got here, and so I watched them put it in.” Hermes pressed a few buttons on Penelope’s pad. “I don’t know what Penelope’s is, but I’ve cracked more secure pads than this one.”
Ah, right. Hermes used to break into all sorts of things. There were more shouts, and Marcus jerked.
Hermes glanced up for a moment. “There was some sort of bomb. When it blew up, the security system went all wacky. Most of the prisoners that weren’t killed by the explosion are now out and about.” The pad gave an unhappy beep. “I think some sepios are trapped in that part of the cell block, and so that’s why there’s shooting.” The door unlocked and Hermes pulled it open.
They were beside Penelope in an instant. Marcus slid to the floor, a sudden trembling inside. Hermes pressed his fingers against her throat, and her eyelids shivered open. She moaned and tried to move, but Hermes pressed down on her shoulders, firm but tender. “Shhh, don’t move.”
More gunfire. Hermes looked up. “I have to go help the sepios.”
Marcus blinked at him. “No, you don’t! You have to help Penelope!”
“The prisoners will kill the sepios after they run out of ammunition.” Hermes tried to run his hand through his hair, but it got caught on the dried blood.
Marcus pointed to Penelope. “Sepios did this to Penelope!”
“It’s what I have to do as a beacon.” Hermes started to stand, but Marcus jerked him back down.
“No, helping Penelope is what you have to do.”
Hermes shook his head. “Marcus, it’s the right thing to do. And if you’re only thinking of Penelope right now, you have to realize that you and I can’t move her by ourselves without causing further damage. We need help.”
Marcus ground his teeth. Hermes was right. Of course. “I’ll go with you.”
Hermes brushed some hair out of Penelope’s face, and bit his lip. “We’ll be back. Try not to move.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow but decided to keep his thoughts to himself. He put the respirator in Penelope’s mouth. After a moment of indecision, he patted her shoulder and followed Hermes out to the hall.
They rounded the corner, and sure enough, through the strip of glass in the door, he could see seven sepios huddled behind an overturned desk, exchanging fire with a group of prisoners down the hall who used an upturned table for cover. Hermes went straight for the pad, and Marcus knocked on the door. It took several knocks before one of the sepios turned around and saw them.
“Get us out!” The sepio shouted loud enough for the sound to carry only slightly muted through the glass.
Marcus pointed at Hermes. “We’re working on it.”
Hermes was talking quietly under his breath while his fingers flew across the pad. “We’re Your witness here, El Roi. Please help me get this door open in time so that I can shine Your light onto these sepios.” The pad squawked, and Hermes dragged his fingers through his filthy hair. He paused and leaned his head against the wall. “Help me to focus. My head’s hurting so bad right now, El Roi.”
A few of the sepios pounded desperately on the door, and a vein popped out on Hermes’s forehead.
His fingers danced across the pad until it gave a squall and a chirp and the door unlocked.
The sepios practically fell through the door.
“Um.” Marcus pointed down the hall. The prisoners were charging towards the door. “Close the door.” His heart thudded in his head. “Close the door!” Marcus hauled a squirming sepio to his feet and threw his shoulder into the door.
The prisoners collided with the door, sending Marcus back a couple steps, but the sepios were there, shoving the door shut again. More prisoners began ramming into the door. Marcus slammed into the door beside one of the sepios. “Lock the door!”
The prisoners picked up the desk and used it as a battering ram. Marcus and the sepios fell back a step. “Hermes! In the name of the darkwater deeps, lock the door!”
“I’m trying! The system is on the fritz.” Hermes ran another hand through his filthy hair while the other ran across the pad.
When the desk busted the door open, Marcus was thrown back a few steps, falling hard. The prisoners pounced. Shots rang out, and a couple fell as the sepios fought back. Marcus lunged for one reaching for Hermes, knocking him to the ground. Another leapt at the beacon. “Hermes!”
In a flash, faster than Marcus’s eyes could follow, Hermes turned from the pad and jabbed the prisoner’s throat. Hermes jerked the prisoner around and wrenched his arm until it broke. He shoved the prisoner back on the other side of the door before turning back to the pad without so much as grunting.
Ah, right. Hermes used to kill people.
The sepios pushed the last prisoner back, and Marcus caught the door and slammed it. The sepios piled around him, sweating and grunting.
“I can’t do this alone, El Roi.”
The prisoners pressed hard against the door, and every one of Marcus’s muscles cried out. “HERMES!”
The pad beeped, and the door locked. Marcus sagged against the door, panting. A hand gripped his shoulder, and he heard Hermes’s nervous laugh. “Thank you, El Roi.”
Marcus leaned against the wall. “Penelope.”
“I know.” Hermes picked up a discarded rifle and held it up. “This’ll have to do for a splint.”
“A gun, Hermes, a gun?”
The sepios were beginning to regroup, and they regarded Hermes warily. He flashed them a reassuring smile. “It’s the best I’ve got on hand, Marcus. And it’s not like I’m gonna strap it to her leg fully loaded or anything.” Hermes popped a couple things out of the gun. Bullets hit the floor. He yanked on another part of the gun, and a few more pieces fell to the ground. In a matter of seconds, the gun was merely a skeleton of its old self. “This’ll work.”
Hermes picked a knife off the ground and motioned to the sepios. “We have to get someone, and then we’ll all be heading out.” He turned, swayed slightly, and marched away.
Marcus glanced at the sepios. “You’ll have to help us carry her out. Think of the best way out of this place.” He followed Hermes back to Penelope’s cell. She lay still, taking deep breaths of pure oxygen. Hermes cut the left side of her pants open and ran a hand up and down her leg.
Marcus sank down beside her. She was trembling, staring up at him with wide, frightened eyes. He tried to give her a smile, but it felt like a grimace.
“The break is in her calf, and it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be—it’s not a compound fracture. Still, we need to set her leg and splint it before we move her.” Hermes looked sick.
Marcus sighed. “Can you do that?”
Marcus flinched and rubbed his forehead. “From Chimo?”
Hermes nodded again.
Marcus swallowed. “Okay. What do you need me to do?”
“Hold her hand.” Hermes leaned over Penelope. “Penelope, this is going to be… excruciating, but I have to do it.” He dropped his jacket and tore his shirt off. He shrugged back into his jacket and ripped his shirt into strips. “You can scream or pass out if you want, and this’ll keep you from biting your tongue.” He held out a balled up scrap of his shirt.
Penelope nodded and let Hermes take the respirator and tuck the fabric into her mouth. Marcus took both of her hands and looked into her eyes. They were wide and wild and so afraid. She trembled so hard. Marcus wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her tight against his chest.
Seconds stretched by, and suddenly, Hermes made a quick motion that Marcus couldn’t see, and Penelope arched her back. The fabric did little to muffle her scream, and Marcus flinched. Her fingernails broke through his skin, and then she went limp. Hermes was sniffing as he pressed what was left of the gun against her leg and carefully wrapped her leg in the strips of his shirt. His hand settled on her good knee as he wiped his forehead. “Let’s get out of this place.”
The sepios were wordless as they carried Penelope’s cot. Hermes lagged behind, stumbling. Marcus paused. “What’s wrong?”
Hermes grimaced. “My head’s just… not working well right now, and I’m pretty tired. I have the letter though!” He patted his jacket. “Safe and sound in a secret pocket. I forgot I put it there.”
Marcus pulled Hermes’s arm over his shoulder. “We have to keep moving. I’ll help you.”
Hermes smiled, a bit deliriously, perhaps. “Thanks, Marcus. You’re always helping me get out of this sort of thing, aren’t you?”
Marcus grunted. “Well, this would be about the second time I’ve had to come rescue you from some mess.”
Hermes tripped but Marcus caught him and kept on after the sepios. Penelope’s steady light lit the way. Marcus popped his nocturnals and struggled on. “Will Penelope be all right?”
“I don’t know…” Hermes’s words slurred slightly, and Marcus swallowed. Head wounds could be very tricky.
“So why did they hit you?”
“Oh, this?” Hermes grinned and then grimaced again. “Penelope was causing a ruckus, and I moved to try to calm her down. It freaked them out, and so I got a rifle stock to the head… and then several punches and few kicks for good measure.”
Hermes started to lag again, but Marcus pulled him along. “This is not the time for you to finally decide you’re going to pass out after all that pad cracking, criminal fighting, and leg setting.”
Hermes laughed softly. “El Roi does amazing things with adrenaline.” His words slurred more. “But it’s really quite incredible. With El Roi, I’m not afraid, you know? Because He’s with me, I don’t have to be afraid because I’m never alone…” Hermes jerked up a bit. “Ever.”
Finally, they came to an exit, on the far side of the compound, along the wall. The sepios shuffled through the door with Penelope while Marcus practically dragged Hermes through. One of the sepios took off at a run, probably to get help. Marcus lowered Hermes to the ground beside Penelope’s pallet and sat down hard next to them. Penelope’s chest rose and fell steadily, her blue-gray eyes closed, her face expressionless in her sleep. Hermes was pale, and his face was set in a grimace. The beacons’ light lapped against each other, Hermes’s sharp and bright, Penelope’s soft and steady. Marcus took one of Penelope’s hands and one of Hermes’s and hugged them to his chest.
Finally, his heart could stop racing. They were here with him, somewhat safe. He sagged against Penelope’s pallet and pulled off his nocturnals. He let out a deep breath and stared at the sky. The blank, black canvas stared back. El Roi. He had seen them. He had seen them back in the murklands. He had seen them tonight. He had seen Marcus. The thought sent fear prickling down his spine and longing quickening in his spirit.
Marcus looked down at the unconscious beacons. Both with souls that were fractured and whole all at once, beautiful and broken. A lump settled in Marcus’s throat. It’s an incredible thing, how quickly people become precious.
He cocked his head. So this is what El Roi does to people.
New light rounded the corner as the sepio returned with more sepios and a handful of beacons.
The beacons crowded around Marcus, Hermes, and Penelope, pressing close, praying, and whispering amongst themselves. Marcus shoved himself to his feet and pushed past the beacons to the sepios, keeping Penelope and Hermes in the corner of his eye. He wasn’t leaving them. They couldn’t make him. He folded his arms and planted his feet in front of the sepio who seemed to be in charge. “So. What are your plans?”
The sepio pushed his nocturnals back and looked up at Marcus. “Well, the beacons are out after curfew, and that’s strictly prohibited. Those two beacons–” he pointed to Hermes and Penelope “–should be taken back into custody now that the explosion is under control.”
Hm, well then. Marcus shifted on his feet and threw a glance at the other sepios who were chatting in groups. He sniffed and rubbed his nose. He let out a breath, muscles coiling tight.
He grabbed the sepio by the front of the jacket and yanked him forward, until they were nose to nose. The sepios erupted, levelling guns on him, but he didn’t lose eye contact with the now wide-eyed sepio. “Here’s how I see it: if it weren’t for the beacons, that fire would still be burning down that building and eating up oxygen. More of your men would be dead.”
He swung the sepio around to see Hermes and Penelope. “If it weren’t for those two beacons, seven more of your men would be dead right now.” Marcus’s voice was low and fast. “Now, you’re going to let all of the beacons go without so much as a doodle on their records, and you’re going to let those two beacons board a ship bound for Pollux. Am I clear?”
The sepio’s eyes darted around the group—the startled beacons, the sepios ready to shoot, and then back to Marcus. “And what if I don’t?”
Marcus blinked. “You see the pretty little beacon with the splinted leg? Yeah, her. Your men broke her leg, and so if you don’t do the decent thing and let all of us go, I’ll break both of your legs right here and now. And I don’t really give darkwater if you shoot me in the head for it.”
The sepio swallowed.
The Antigone Bay beacons moved them to a small ship. Marcus’s body revolted at the sight, but he kept moving, watching over Hermes and Penelope. The sepios had returned Hermes and Penelope’s packs, and Marcus carried them. The beacons had restocked all three packs for them. The boat dipped beneath his boots, and he sighed as the beacons strapped Penelope and her cot down. He could tell they didn’t approve of his methods with the sepios, but he wasn’t a beacon yet, and so they couldn’t pester him about it.
He settled in between his two beacons, and locked Winston into an aqua-lantern holder. The ship started to move as the engines came alive. Marcus’s stomach turned, and the sweat began. He groaned. One week of seasickness to look forward to.
Sometime in the morning, Hermes stirred. “Marcus. Are you there?”
“Yep.” Marcus opened one eye.
Hermes rubbed his head. “Where are we?”
“On a ship from Antigone Bay to Pollux.”
“To Pollux at last?” Hermes sounded almost like he didn’t believe it.
Marcus chuckled. “Yes. The sepios let us go because we helped them. Now we’re bound for Pollux.”
Hermes tested the bruises on his face. “I’m a bit concerned that you aren’t telling me everything, Marcus—about why the sepios let us go.”
A smile twitched across Marcus’s face. “Don’t worry yourself too much.”
You can read Flickering Lights 10: El Roi here.
So! Was it worth the wait?
Did you think that Hermes was dead? (I considered killing him off here, but it did nothing for the story at this point, so…)
Have we seen the last of the sepios?
Whoa, and Marcus can be pretty intense sometimes. O.o