Eli sat in the dirt, staring helplessly as the wounded vertibird flew away. Behind him the war rig burned, belching great plumes of black smoke into the afternoon sky in its dying gasps. The flames were so hot, they wouldn’t be able to put it out for hours or get near enough to try and begin to salvage anything. Everything they owned was on the rig, except what he could keep in his pockets or strapped to his back. Now it was just a stinking, twisted metal pyre for Lysistrata.
He could sense the others moving behind him, picking each other up. He knew that he should go and help, heal the wounded and see what they could save before they headed onwards to wherever they would go next. But for now he just sat and stared as the flying machine disappeared off in the glare of the sun.
He could feel Lili pulling away from him for the second time that day. For the second time he was powerless to stop them – at least this time he was in enough control not to offload his pain and rage into the world around him. He just felt exhausted and empty. He kept replaying it over and over in his head, trying to think of what he could have done differently. But nothing came to mind. He just heard the man’s voice again and again, cold and casual.
He didn’t understand. What was the test? Had these last few months all been a test all along? How was he supposed to pass if he didn’t know the parameters, didn’t know what he was striving for? Who was the man, to be setting him a test? Eli didn’t recognise him from the white rooms, although there was something vaguely familiar about him. Perhaps they had met before and he had forgotten. Eli would not forget him again.
For the first time in his life, he had actively defied an order. Eli had never even considered doing something like that before. True, as of late there had been times when in the absence of an order he had taken the initiative and indulged his own growing curiosity about the world around him. But nothing directly ignored or disobeyed. He’d never wanted to not do what he was told before. It had been agony to ignore the command, every fibre of his being screaming at him to just do what he was supposed to do. In purely technical terms he hadn’t – the nameless man hadn’t given him a time parameter for how long he was supposed to stay where he was, so if the order was interpreted liberally he hadn’t broken any rules. But that was just being argumentative and looking for loopholes to defy the order, still being disobedient. Was this what the Duke and Snowy had been trying to teach him to do, every time he was asked what he wanted or what he thought? The pain it brought to make the choices yourself didn’t seem worth it.
And worse, it had still been for nothing. He had been ejected from the machine before he’d even had a chance to reach her and they had left without him. He could only watch uselessly once again. He was always useless. For all that he had at his disposal, he was too small and weak to help when it really mattered – when it mattered to him. What good was it being born to save people if you failed?
He sat in the dirt, staring at the vanishing dot on the horizon.