SHIELD: THE FUTURE
The last time I felt this way…
Shield watches everyone around him through half-closed eyes. When no one is looking his way, he shifts uncomfortably in the clothing they make him wear. It’s as if I can’t breathe wrapped in cloth, he thought.
Joy had taught him skills he wished he could utilize. Breathing air as a skill wasn’t useful in and around the Sunken City, but in the shallows, he would be unstoppable. Well, unstoppable if he could leave this place.
He rolled onto his side and stared straight up. The blue sky was breathtaking. And this wasn’t even the best sky there was to see! Joy told him about the sky where she lived in preparation of the changing ceremony. This sky was blue, but there was a grey overcast permeated with white wisps.
Clouds. He remembers the word Joy used. She told him they were wisps of water floating in the sky. It had even rained a few times during his stay with the Sky People. If he had learned anything during the encounter with Menace, it was that he needed to protect his gills from the rain. The rain was corrosive; it wasn’t suitable to breath, so he wrapped his clothes around his neck when he felt the electric jolts splay across the sky.
A slight wind blew through the metal bars, and with it a dingy feather. The presence of something so alien forced his charade of sleep. The cell next to him houses a sky person; his wings were mottled with dust and grime as his they dragged on the floor.
Shield sat up and rubbed his feet on the filthy stone floor. Tiny stones stuck to the webs between his toes. He reached for the feather and twisted it in front of his eyes. He didn’t really look at it, but studied the political prisoner next to him. When Altair was first imprisoned, he held his head and plumage high. It added beautifully to his height. His wings never touched the ground.
But now… Altair rocked back and forth on the floor, tearing out untamed feathers and flinging them toward the barred ceiling. It was sad, the man was so proud, and it didn’t matter that Shield wasn’t a Sky Person.
Altair, Shield thought. He allowed the name to float around in his brain. Unlike his people, the Sky People had unique names. Names that didn’t even tell who they were! It took a week for Shield to figure out Altair was akin to a cleric, but his acumen in politics was lacking. When he and Joy acted, they damned the Sky People. And they weren’t happy about it.
When he and Joy guided Menace back to the Sky People…
Shield closed his eyes, impeding the memory. As he watched Joy turn to crystal, he was enraged. He had seen it happen to previous Joys, but that was beneath the great arch. The sight of her mouth open in a scream as her skin transformed into white crystal… Shield shuddered at the memory. Clerics of the sky people stared and stared as they dragged away their… Joy wasn’t what they called her. He didn’t know much about their society, but their crystal performed the same duties as the Light of Joy.
The explosion destroyed the crystal room and as Joy sunk into the sea over the Sunken City, he felt her joy and warmth. They knew she would sink all the way to the great arch and take her place as the Light of Joy.
He had five years to stop it from happening again. The Sky people had technology to keep their city afloat. It wasn’t meant to be permanent, only as a stopgap measure if something had gone wrong with their crystal.
And something most certainly did.
So many things could’ve gone wrong with their plans. The Sky People were ill equipped to retrieve Joy, and the salvation of the flotilla. None of them could get any deeper than twenty or thirty feet. Their scholars consulted tomes of paper and they knew the Sunken City was an impenetrable fortress guarded by a protectorate that was unencumbered by bulky tech to breath and withstand the pressures of the deep.
Shield smiled at the notion of his Shield brethren dispatching the invaders with ease. He knew in his heart that his people had returned to their home. The deeds that made him an outcast had been repaid in full. He wanted to see his people restored to their former glory, but life in this caveae would be his penance.
He scratched lines into his cage to mark the passing of time. He stared at his handiwork and counted on his fingers. Another day has passed.
The Sky people tracked time by the rise and set of the Sun. His people charted the passage of time on the tides.
Shield stood, retrieved a piece of rock and scratched another line into the wall.
“It’s time, isn’t it?”
Shield looked to Altair and nodded solemnly.
“Will she come for you?”
“Praise Nekhbet,” Altair whispered. “May she guide you and your woman.”
Shield didn’t understand the intricacies of the Sky People’s religion, but he could plainly see the stepped pyramid that had housed their crystal. A sacred place to them that he destroyed. A place he had escaped, but quick-moving Sky People caught him before he hit the water.
He incapacitated two before they knocked him unconscious. The trial was for show. He was found guilty of desecrating their temple, stealing their living engine and the murder of the two Sky People who had drowned trying to arrest him.
“Five…” Shield had to think of the word that meant twelve lunar cycles to the Sky People. “Years?” he asked Altair.
“I’ve been caged for five years.”
Shield turned and stared at the oceanic expanse. The moon was just breaking the horizon, and the sun was sinking. He almost thought he saw Joy watching him from the sea, but that was absurd.