After they finished a leisurely breakfast, they paused to admire the sweeping view of the city. Streets and transport tubes buzzed with activity, the bustle of daily life somehow far removed from the darkness that threatened to overwhelm it. Immaculate buildings fronted broad boulevards and plazas beautifully landscaped with fountains, shimmering reflecting pools and a dazzling array of foliage. Colorfully tiled pathways meandered through verdant parks and play areas alive with the sound of children.
As Aislinn sipped an aromatic herbal tea, she considered the events of the previous day and the chilling sight of the Klatrians struggling in the sunlight. The two men taken into custody no doubt would have been interrogated by now. Hopefully, information had been gleaned that could assist in the rescue of her parents.
"Penny for your thoughts," Dylan said.
"I can't stop thinking about the Klatrians."
Dylan nodded. "Alien Kamikaze. Who would have imagined such a thing?"
"We don't know enough about them, Dylan. Maybe in their society such a sacrifice might be considered the ultimate honor. Or perhaps these drones are conscripts to a dark cause we can barely imagine." She shook her head. "It seems conflict exists everywhere. I really hoped that it wouldn't be so, that other worlds might have advanced to a peaceful state, but perhaps violence is the only way to bring about the understanding and appreciation of harmony. Innocence, it seems, isn't the way of the universe."
Her gaze drifted to a plaza adjacent to the palace. Scattered groups of people strolled along the mosaic paths or sat by acrobatically jetting fountains creating intricate patterns in the air. A young girl pointed excitedly as a plume of spray from the dancing water formed a shimmering rainbow. Well away from the path, beneath a lacy canopy of trees, a couple stood watching the girl. Though they appeared innocuous enough, something about their stance made her uneasy.
"Dylan, over by the plaza. Look at that couple."
Suspiciously, they melted into the trees when Dylan casually glanced their way. "Let me warn the guards."
As Aislinn watched, the couple threaded their way across the plaza. They did not linger and in passing through sunny patches, she noticed their urgency to seek shade. Moments later, a contingent of guards clad in royal blue tunics and trousers and bearing the royal insignia on their shoulders, surrounded the plaza. A flurry of activity, mostly concealed by the trees, finally revealed a pursuit. Pedestrians scattered as the senior guard shouted something. The man pushed the woman away and fled in the opposite direction.
Aislinn gasped as a sensation of coldness washed over her. At that moment, the woman doubled back and veered onto a path near the fountain. As if sensing Aislinn's scrutiny, she suddenly paused and raised her eyes. Their glances locked, and a hostility beyond description emanated from the woman's gaze. Bolting off at the sound of shouting, she somehow lost her footing and fell onto a sunny part of the path. Witnessing the spectacle below, Aislinn clasped the railing with white knuckles.
"There! On the path!" she cried out, the breeze carrying her voice downward to the guards, spurring them into action. Snared by the sunlight, the woman struggled to rise as though stunned. Her reactions were sluggish. She glared balefully and tried to bolt from the contingent of approaching guards, but stumbled again.
Dylan returned a moment later. "It's okay. They won't get away. The guards have been on alert since yesterday's incident. These two have actually been spotted before, but managed to get away."
Aislinn frowned at the woman's increasing agitation. She stumbled with the uncoordinated movements of a drunkard.
A guard advanced on the disoriented woman while a second jumped her from behind and tackled her to the ground. The woman fought the men with unbelievable viciousness before her body abruptly slackened in their grip.
"Watch yourself!" Aislinn cried out to the guards, again sensing the woman's malevolence.
Almost on cue, the woman exploded into a frenzied resistance. The second guard was caught by surprise and barely missed her flailing fists. It took both a supreme effort to subdue her. Aislinn watched in horror as the woman's fury transformed into agony. Writhing in the sun, she began screaming and clawing at her face, the epidermis peeling off in shriveled, parchment-like strips. Even from a distance, Aislinn could see revulsion in the guards' faces as the woman savagely gouged her flesh. Muddy fluid jetted from the wounds, and despite the intervention of a third guard, none could stop her self-mutilation.
Aislinn shook her head as if to banish the ugly scene. "Dear God, is this what we're up against?"