“How far can you fly?”

Ayah’s question was a cloud on the horizon to Omar, he paid it no heed. He couldn’t if he wanted to. A cacophony of voices walled Omar in. Pleas. Requests. Demands. “This isn’t freedom, I’m shackled by these godforsaken wings,” he revolted. The Earth Mother’s breath saved him, blowing sand grains towards those vultures, forcing the wake to disperse. “They aren’t vultures, they’re scared, they want comfort or... confirmation,” reflected Omar.

ZAYA Corporation had set up operations 300 kilometres east of their encampment, two years ago. Two years ago, is that what a lifetime feels like? For little Ayah that was probably just a blur, but Omar remembers, remembers life in morning dew, in the tickle of grass, grounded in earth. Now they were surrounded by the corpse of The Earth Mother. She died here, died of thirst, her cup emptied by ZAYA. Only her spirit lives on, through the breath she first breathed aeons ago.

Sayallah awaited him, unconcerned by the hail of tiny stones accompanying his arrival. She was a mighty baobab tree, muscle packed every inch of her three metre height, and she wore a crown of Bantu knots. She knew hostility, she knew life.

“Surprised to see me?” Omar joked, and forgot himself in the presence of his lord. “I’m…” but before he had time to apologise, Sayallah let out a roar of approval and – seeming to cover the 10 metres between them in one step – slapped him ferociously on the arm. The resin of humour covered the wound of loss between the two souls. So many scouts had been taken, Omar knew he wouldn’t be around for long.

“I’m glad you’re back, walk with me to the Quarters, my people will refresh you, and you will tell me what you know.”

“I wonder how many times she’s repeated those words,” thought Omar, “and how many times she hasn’t.”

“How are you feeling? I know you hadn’t tasted the sky’s air until only five days since. Rest.” Sayallah guided Omar to her inner sanctum, but the words assaulted Omar in this place of peace. His response was a constellation in the galaxy of his eyes. Sayallah understood.

Sitting in the cool cavern, Omar knew he would have to bring the events of his flight into his conscious, to relay them to his lord. His lord would provide him a drink to ease the process, a liquid that moved trauma to the mouth, as easily as a house floats downriver in flood. “Even if I could live long as a scout, I don’t think I could,” came the echo in Omar’s skull.

“Do you trust me, Omar?” asked Sayallah.

How could he trust her? How could he not?

“The first time, it is uncomfortable, but I am here with you, you are safe.”

Safe. The word clung to him. He looked through her, into the face of death. Only his shell would be safe, he would be stolen from his body, and would return someone else. Would he return at all? “I am ready,” spoke Omar’s mouth, betraying himself.

In went the liquid, washing over the palette, gravity pulling it down and through Omar. And then Omar too was pulled down and through. Sayallah saw the eyes glaze over, the pools poisoned. “It is the only way,” she apologised to the body.

Omar relived his experience, past becoming present, telling all Sayallah he was.

“The wind has a soft touch. I am untouchable up here. So high!” Omar giggled like the dead.

Sayallah was not taken aback, the shock of these recollections faded long ago, their sting dulled.

“Are those Khavi? How far are they, 40 kilometres?”

“So the ocular enhancement was useful after all,” assessed Sayallah. But the recollection had just begun, and always it unfolds chronologically. Omar’s next words fell on deaf ears, Sayallah’s entered a calculated trance, realising the Khavi must be…

Before Sayallah had time to turn for the guards, the ground let out a great groan, rocking rock around her. The peace which followed was pierced instantly by muffled screams and cries. “It is too late,” Sayallah knew, and sprinted to face the danger.

Leaving Omar was a risk, but risk was a privilege now. Certain was the chaos.

The Khavi, a mercenary band for the ZAYA group, commandeered the undead. In a land where death only is bountiful, their army was many. Sayallah’s nose confirmed their arrival.

Passing the threshold out of the inner sanctum, an open ribcage, still beating heart, stared sadly at Sayallah. Her focus training took over and dropping to a crouch, she scanned. As the heart of the guard Ayanami came to rest inside her contorted body, the bloated corpse of a bear barrelled towards Sayallah.

The claws glittered monstrously on the stone floor, but Sayallah held her focus, slowing time around her.

With her left hand she unleashed the empowered war hammer which lay waiting across her back. Feeling its weight in both hands, she prepared her stance. Right leg stretched forward, and bodyweight shifted forward with it. The left leg anchored her as she brought the war hammer above and behind in a great arc.

And as that second ended, her muscles exploded, bringing the head of the hammer down, crushing the head of the charging bear. The central processing unit fizzled, the dead was dead once more.

In the quiet that followed, Sayallah found Ayanami once more, and embraced her.

“What happened? How did this happen?”, Sayallah asked, shedding a tear.

Ayanami responded with silence.

“I’m sorry, forgive me.” And she left the heart.

As Sayallah reached the mouth of the compound, she found more of her people, some upright, others at rest. Those who could, came to her, rejoiced, told her the attack was being rebuffed, and that Khavi operators had been identified 10 kilometres out. She gave orders to those who heard, and ran towards death as fast as she could.

Omar’s recitation poured forth from him, crashing into the silence. The body of him sweat and shook, but he was elsewhere.

A newly posted guard outside Omar’s room heard the rising din, and strained not to listen. Only the lord could hear such truths and live, the soul of a guard such as she would wither out of existence were it to experience reality. She sung the songs of a hundred generations to block out that unbearable knowledge.

A decade passed in the guard’s mind before the titanic figure of her lord returned, shrunk with solemnity.

“What of him?” asked Sayallah.

“I think he lives still, but I’ve heard no sound these past minutes.”

Sayallah knew better, and began to say the ritual of rest in mind-speak as she passed into the inner sanctum.

The body of Omar sat drenched, still. Sayallah finished the second passage, and sitting down in front of him, met his eyes. She willed him to be. The pools cleared, and gasping, he unravelled a gift.

“The tribes, they’ll fight, twenty days, we’ll take the mines”.