Ally, the daughter of Lord Wayndaf, woke screaming. Drenched in sweat, the silken sheets of her posh, four-poster canopy bed clung to her nude body. She fought out of the cloying sheets and clawed at the curtains that swirled around her, dragging them down as she tumbled onto the floor. Red Nunimo’s warm, fading glow and the brightening rays of Solarus danced across her body as they shone through the stained quartz windows that dominated the walls of her lavish bedchamber. As she lay heaving on the expensive, imported A’quonese rug she could not help but recall her dream.
It was cold. So cold. Ally was lying on something that floated suspended in complete darkness. She couldn’t move her arms or legs. She was also unable to speak, or scream. Her eyes and head were still hers, though, and she looked around in a vain attempt to see something… Anything. Her heart beat faster and faster as she lay in the dark for she knew not how long.
Suddenly, there was a clicking sound, then a whirr as a glowing, metallic sphere descended into view from the darkness above her and hung there, rotating slowly. It bristled with needles, lenses, and other, wickedly protruding instruments. She could feel the paralysis that afflicted her body as it crept up her neck and into her head, making them completely immobile. The sphere emitted a series of odd noises and whistles while it rotated up and down her body. She was being examined, but for what and for why?
So cold… The sphere came to a stop directly above Ally’s face. She could see that it was made up of a patchwork number of metal plates loosely pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Its instruments poked out of the seams between the plates along with a steady green glow which she supposed came from the core of the infernal device. It spun this way, then that, as if searching through its own instrumental repertoire, until it apparently settled on a very long, very thin needle which it aimed at her frozen left eye.
So cold! Her body became completely numb, the coldness fading into nothingness as the sphere started to descend towards Ally’s eye. She felt nothing, not even the beating of her heart, as the needle penetrated the exact center of her ocular orb. There was a blinding white flash and there was nothing left to remember.
Ally reached up and rubbed her left eye where the needle had struck. No bruising, no pain. She closed her right eye and examined the stained glass windows with her left. Nothing was wrong with her vision. It was just a dream after all, but was it? Deep down she felt it was more than that. That sphere did something to her, but what? And why?
She stood on shaky legs and made her way to the adjoining bathroom and sat on the chamberpot to empty her bladder with relief. A small mirror on the bathroom door reflected a disheveled, yet beautiful and slightly olive-skinned woman a few years shy of prime. Her bright blue eyes and oval face with a cute nose and warm lips were accentuated and framed by the long dark hair that fell in waves just past her shoulders. The hair was heavily peppered with the silver strands that all knew marked Ally’s claim to the noble bloodline of House Wayndaf.
With a start, Ally realized that Nunimo had set, leaving the room to be brightly lit by the morning rays of Solarus. Her maid would be by soon to bring her morning meal. As she left the bathroom a bright, stabbing pain pierced her mind and she fell writhing to the floor. Eyes shut and holding her head, Ally could still see swirling multicolored lights. After a long moment, the lights coalesced into a set of runes that played out in lines scrolling before her mind’s eye. The runes were in no language she knew, but somehow, she could read them…
SPECIES ID #10,298,349,378 / HOST ID #32,984 ONLINE / INITIALIZE INVASION PROTOCOL ID #83,740,329 / PROTOCOL INITIALIZED / RELEASING VIRUS ID #2,083,239,945 INTO HOST … … … …
Ally whimpered as something maliciously and painfully cold seized her brain. She could feel it flashing down her spine and spreading throughout her entire body. She thrashed with an uncontrollable seizure across the rug.
VIRUS ID #2,083,239 RELEASED / FULL CONTAMINATION IN 23:59:59… 23:59:58… 23:59:57… 23:59:56…
The pain subsided as quickly as it came, though Ally could still feel a hint of the chill deep within her bones. She opened her eyes but the numbers still throbbed before her, pulsating as it counted down every second.
The Lady managed to get up under her strength and into a slip before her maid came in, carrying a steaming tray of morning meal, which was a simple fare of oatmeal, steamed quail eggs, toast with butter and honey, and a juice made from the oranges and grapes from her father’s fields. Expertly ignoring the pile of bed curtains on the floor, the maid set the tray on a small table and turned to examine her mistress with a shrewd eye. “Rough night?” Sondra asked?
“It’s not what you think, Sondra!” said Ally. “I had that dream again.”
The sheets fell from Sondra’s busy hands as she exclaimed, “The one where the ranger…”
“No!” interrupted Ally, blushing. “The alien dream.”
“Oh!” The bed got neatly made under a flurry of anxious hands. Glancing sidelong at Lady Ally, Sondra said, “You know, those dreams may not mean anything. That man you saw, the Professor, he said a lady’s cycles…”
“It’s not my cycle yet!” said Ally, cutting Sondra off. “I know what I saw then. I know what I saw last night and I know what I see now.”
“Uh-huh,” Sondra slowly nodded. “If you say so, mistress. I’d best get these curtains replaced!” She quickly gathered up the bed curtains and made her way to the door. Pausing at the doorframe, she looked back at Ally and said, “By the way, your father has called for you.”
Lord Wayndaf sat at the head of the dining table picking at his breakfast of oatmeal and steamed quail egg while listening to a young courier speaking in hushed tones at his side. He raised a silver eyebrow at Ally, glanced towards an empty chair at his left and silenced the courier with a wave. The courier bowed and left the room as Ally sat down in the empty chair and studied her father. Lord Wayndaf sat straight and tall in his chair, regal with a neatly trimmed silver mane, and lean despite his fifty-odd winters.
“Ally,” he said gruffly. “I’ve just received your final reports from the University and it looks like you’re going to have to retake Literature of The Firsts due to,” he indicated a paper lying in front of him, “poor attendance and disposition.” The lord leaned forward and looked sternly at Ally. “Explain this, daughter.”
Ally looked down and said, “Father, that class is really early in the morning and I’ve been having nightmares again. I missed some classes and haven’t been able to keep up. I’m sorry.”
“Nightmares?” Lord Wayndaf looked annoyed but visibly attempted to take on a concerned tone. “Ally, I understand you have these nightmares. They don’t usually last long enough to affect your studies. We can’t afford to let them slide or you won’t be able to become a certified Lady. If that doesn’t happen before the Second Moonings…”
“You’ll forfeit your Lordship contract by not providing a certified heir before it expires.” Ally smiled sadly. “I know, father. The professor is going to give me another chance. I’ll make it work, I’m sorry.” The Nobility Accords of 1863 allowed families who held respected titles a dignified way of transitioning out of the feudal system. They could hold their lands and titles as long as they paid the citizens in their service a fair wage and certified their heirs.
It was more responsibility than perk these days, requiring the attendance of many ceremonial functions and often coming hand in hand with official Hall appointments. Despite the socialist restrictions and severe taxation, the noble houses remain a vital and lucrative part of the Empire’s economy and massively influenced its government.
Certifying an heir requires a candidate to pass a series of tests proving their education and worth in matters of leadership. An heir need not be a family member but one must be designated after the titleholder reaches a certain age. If a certified heir cannot be found then the title is auctioned off to a pool of certified heirs that have yet or are unlikely to inherit a title. Usually second and third borns or cousins. The education for the certification is as exhaustive as it is expensive, and the application fee would also make most nobles think twice about sponsoring an unworthy candidate. The entire process is governed by the Hall of People’s powerful Bureau of Noble Affairs.
Such is Empire, Ally mused.
“Is he!” Lord Wayndaf was pleased. This was all he needed. Ever since the death of Ally’s mother, Alyne, his work at the Hall of Words consumed his attention. He was the Far Spires Chief of Empire’s Bureau of Investigations. He could return to his work now, which was his true passion.
Especially since reports of the recent murder of a third victim had confirmed his suspicions that a serial killer was loose in Far Spires. And targeting victims who looked like his daughter. He’d catch the killer if his name wasn’t Lord Searcy Wayndaf! He got up from the table, glanced at Ally, then guiltily looked away. “I’ve got to go, honey, E.B.I. business at the North Gate and then an autopsy at the Temple of the Black Hand.”
“You found the third victim?” asked Ally. She knew about the murders but not that the victims looked like her.
“No.” The lord didn’t miss a beat in his lie. “Just a White Hand acolyte. Probably ate a bad mushroom. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about but Bertos will be on guard this weekend just in case.”
“Okay, Father.” Ally suspected that Lord Wayndaf was lying but decided to let it go. She had her problems. She got up, curtsied him away, then went to get ready for Literature Firsts. Fortunately, she had afternoon classes this time.
After having dressed in a tasteful outfit of nobly cut tunic and jeans, Ally picked up her satchel and stepped around the pool of congealed blood spreading from her closet. She tried not to look at it. It’s too bad, she thought. Sondra was a nice maid. She loved my dreams, but her body wasn’t compatible with the virus.
She paused at the doorframe. The festerling inside her twitched. Ally slowly walked away.
It would soon be over. For her, and everything else on this planet. She knew that now, and she was okay with it. She would become one with the Synth, and all that mattered now was finding the other hosts.