They met back at the Red Fin and checked in with Sun Yi inquiring as to Ideo’s condition, who had been taken home by her father. “I made a tea for her. She is resting at home.” Sun Yi explained. “Some of the people you were with came by earlier. They left word that they were leaving to find the root I told them about. They left you this note.”

Po took the note and read it carefully then handed it to Rensa. “Would it be alright if we checked on her? ROGER here is a physician, and has some rare abilities that may be of use to her.” He replied.

“Of course. Why don’t you have something to eat? I’ll send Mei over to get my husband.”

“Thank you, that would be nice. Oh, and this time we can pay.” Po said, pulling a barter coin from his pocket. “Gunther gave this to me when we met with him today. I don’t know the value of it, but perhaps you could take it as payment for your kindness.”

Sun Yi took the coin and examined it. She immediately recognized it as one of the iron coins used by the underworld as payment for certain illicit activities: gambling, weapons, prostitution; activities that weren’t specifically illegal in the free city, but not necessarily looked upon as completely moral by some people’s standards. She returned the coin to him, but to avoid being impertinent she added, “That is not necessary. You have watched over my daughter for many years. Feeding you is the least I can do.” Sun Yi said deferentially, handing the coin back to him.

“Then, perhaps you can tell us of a place we can find lodging for the week? From the looks of it we’re going to be here for some time.” He said.

“You can stay with us. We have some room available.” Sun Yi offered.

“Oh no, we wouldn’t want to impose any further.”

“Nonsense, I’m sure it is what Ideo intended when she brought you here.”

“I don’t think Ideo intended this when she brought us here … none of this.” He said dismally, “But, we’d be grateful to you for the space.”

They all took a small table in the corner of the tiny restaurant as they sat and waited for their meals. The flicker from the candlelit lamps played against the walls sending the shadows dancing around them. Po began the conversation, “So, tell me what you learned about this place.”

With Ideo’s life hanging in the balance John, Jayk and Sarah decided there was no time to wait. They left the city by the same way they had arrived, and entered the wastes as the sun was rising. “We can travel until the sun reaches its highest point, but then we should rest.” John suggested. Sun Yi had provided them with some nourishment for their trip, a little bit of dried vegetables and water, but they would be forced to ration it if they hoped for it to last the entire trip. The map was very crudely drawn, and the old man had simply told Jayk it would be a few days’ trek to the mountain. But, beyond those bits of information they were completely in the dark about the journey ahead. The city of Solos lay in the valley on the far side of a large mountain chain, and their march would include the widest part of the valley until they reached the other side. Once there, they would need to hike up the mountain an undetermined distance until they found the plant, which had clusters of white flowers and dark purple juicy berries. It was the root they needed and it was poisonous. However, if one brewed it into a tea one could extract just enough of the poison decocting it for its medicinal properties.

As they traveled, the sun began to get higher in the sky, and they decided it would be a good time to rest. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing that will protect us from enemies, either from the Sky Reapers or whoever robbed us back there. Any suggestions?” John asked Sarah and Jayk.

“We could sleep in shifts. You two could get some sleep while I kept watch.” Jayk suggested, “Then we could trade off.”

“That sounds like a plan. If you see anything let us know.” John said, while he and Sarah laid their packs on the ground and got comfortable.

“Here, cover yourself with these, just in case.” Jayk said, handing them some leafy twigs he had plucked from a nearby shrub.

John and Sarah accepted them politely, but were decidedly not going to use them. Sarah laid down and John laid behind her. “Come over on this other side.” She told him. “I have to sleep on my right side, obviously, otherwise it’s just unmanageable. Which is just fine because I’ve always slept on my right side.” John got up as he was instructed and moved to her opposite side so she could see him. “I mean, she always slept on her right side. I guess I have no real experience of what I’ve always done. They’re just her memories.”

“I know what you mean.” John said laying down next to her. He was the only person on the planet who could know what she meant. And that attachment, that one thing, bonded them together more than any two people on Earth. To feel known, to feel understood by another human being, it was such a small thing, but it’s perhaps what everyone needs in life. “Have you been dreaming lately?” He asked her.

“No. I did when I first came out of the cloning chamber, just once, but I haven’t since. I wonder if that’s normal? Or is it just a product of this environment. Ya know?” She asked rhetorically. “I mean, how could we know what’s normal anyway? None of this is normal!”

“Yeah, It certainly takes some getting used to.” John replied.

As she stared into his Russet brown eyes she suddenly became aware of how tired she was and, having trouble keeping them open, closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. He did the same and they both slept there for a long while peacefully, while the world continued spinning in it’s confusing and abnormal way.

After a few hours the oppressive heat began to take its toll on Jayk and, compounded by sheer boredom and exhaustion, he decided it was time for him to get some sleep as well. He went over to John and woke him by gently shaking his arm. “John, it’s your turn to watch the camp for a while.” He said, as John awoke.

John surveyed the sky and decided he had slept long enough. “We’ll let Sarah keep sleeping. The past couple of days have been rough on her body, she deserves the rest.” He commented and Jayk agreed. John got up and walked away to relieve himself while Jayk got comfortable on the ground next to Sarah. As Jayk drifted off to sleep he watched Sarah lay peacefully on the warm soil and imagined better days when all this would be behind them.

The sun began its descent behind the mountains on the western border of the valley, and at that exact moment John heard the unmistakable sound of an alien airship. It was hovering low to the ground and John was suddenly struck with concern. He went to Sarah and Jayk and woke them quickly. “Get up, get up.” He hissed in a hoarse whisper. They both roused awake and he pointed to the ship in the distance; it was too far away to detect them, but too close for them to hide.

“What do we do?” Sarah whispered.

“Get as low to the ground as you can. Lay face down, bury your head if you have to. Cover every inch of your body and stay as still as possible. Hopefully, they’ll pass by us without recognizing us as a threat.” Jayk suggested. They all did as Jayk said, covering their bodies as much as possible. The ship passed by slowly and without incident, in the exact direction they were headed toward the mountain. “Probably a transport ship carrying supplies. Even if they had seen us they probably wouldn’t have done anything. I’ve had ships like that pass right over me before without stopping.” Jayk stated.

“Still, did you see the direction it was headed?” John asked.

“Yeah, right where we’re going. The old man didn’t mention anything about an alien garden in our path.” He said consulting the map. “So, it’s either new …” Jayk started.

“… or the old man lied.” John finished. “This mission just got a lot harder.” He lamented staring off in the direction of the mountain.

Back in Solos, Po, Rensa, Dade and ROGER had gotten comfortable in the Goku household. ROGER was checking on Ideo, and the others were meeting with Hong, Ideo’s father. “Your home is much nicer than I expected.” Po said. “It’s incredible that this city is able to exist here completely undetected by the invaders.”

“It is. We are very fortunate. But, we have struggled through our own difficulties before. We don’t take it for granted. We are aware that anything can happen at a moment’s notice. The world can change in the blink of an eye. You should always be grateful for what you have.” Hong said as he looked up at Po. “I am very grateful to you for bringing our daughter back to us, Mr. Po.”

“Mr. Hong, I want you to know that we did nothing to protect your daughter, other than accept her in and provide her with a place to sleep. Your daughter is an extremely strong woman. We’re honored to have her.” Po stated frankly.

“I appreciate your candor, Mr. Po. But, you must understand I lost my daughter years ago when she was just a child. I’m not ready yet to accept her as a woman.” Hong replied, and added, “You are all welcome to stay in my home as long as you like.”

“We’re very grateful for your hospitality.” Po thanked him. “We’ll be out of here as soon as possible. We’ve got people waiting for us.” He fished the pig iron coin from the depths of his pocket and presented it to the elder Goku and asked, “Could you tell us about this coin? Your wife wouldn’t take it as payment for the food, so we’re at a loss to it’s value.”

“Where did you get this?”

“A man named Gunther, at the fighting pits, gave it to me. At the time I assumed it was payment for beating one of his fighters. But now I’m not so sure.”

“This is a barter coin. It’s used by the gangs of Solos to pay for their more… unsavory activities. The people of Solos tend to barter in food and medicine. Things that have life affirming value. But, the gangs have created their own market, passing these coins back and forth. They don’t tend to spoil and they’re easier to carry.” Hong explained, “You may find that most people in Solos will not accept them, I’m afraid. Unless you’re doing business with the gangs, they have no value.” Hong said, handing the coin back to Po.

“Thank you, Mr. Hong.” Po said displeased.

Po and the others got some sleep that night; they knew the next day was going to be challenging. Po and ROGER had chosen to share a room leaving Dade and Rensa to share one of their own. Po had introduced ROGER as his personal trainer when he met with Gunther and hoped that the charade would avoid disclosing the fact that ROGER was not a human being. These were very dangerous people and they knew that if it were discovered that ROGER had more value than they were letting on, it could be quite difficult for them to get away unharmed. After all, this was Gunther’s territory, forcing Po and the others to play by his rules.

Po awoke the next day early and began by meditating and performing his Kata, a system of body movement practice that he executed to keep his technique in proper form and to prepare for the upcoming fights. After he finished exercising he cleaned up a bit and met the others for some food Sun Yi had prepared for them. ROGER, who was supposed to share the room with Po, couldn’t bring himself to do so, preferring to sit beside Ideo and watch over her as she recuperated.

“How is she doing, Mr. ROGER?” Sun Yi inquired of her daughter while standing in the doorway.

“She’s very weak. The tea you’ve given her is helpful, but her body is not regaining its strength, making it difficult for her to heal. She needs fluids.” ROGER stated, then turned toward her, “Is there a hospital in this city?”

“There is. Is there something my husband can get for you?”

“There may be, yes.” ROGER stated. “I need access to an IV bag, some tubes and sterile needles. This would help to provide her body with the necessary fluids it needs to stay strong until we can get the medicine she requires. Which, hopefully, will be soon.”

Po had a few exhibition bouts to fight before he would be allowed to compete in the main event, which was understandable as he was a newcomer and had no ranking in the fighting pits. ROGER needed to stay with Ideo, at least until he was able to set up an IV for her, so Po chose to bring Rensa with him as his coach during the exhibition match that day. Dade would invest some more time in the casinos.

“Try to make some friends.” Rensa encouraged him.

“I’ll do my best.” He replied with a mock smile.

“The barter coins will help us get weapons, but I don’t know about medicine. So, see if you can find someone to help with that. We’ll do the same.” Po informed ROGER. “Also, take care of yourself while we’re gone, and if you happen to finish before we get back just stay here until we arrive. Wouldn’t want you wandering the streets unattended. You’re a very valuable piece of equipment, and we can’t afford to lose you.” Po said, placing his hand on ROGER’s shoulder.

“Will do.” ROGER said with a smile.

“Let’s get going.” Po said, turning to Rensa and heading out the doorway of the Goku household.

Out in the wastes John, Jayk and Sarah had been on their guard crossing the valley. They were keeping their eyes to the sky, watchful of enemy vessels approaching, as well as staying alert for any sign of edible plants or sources of water in the area. The mountains looked deceptively close, but it wasn’t just reaching the mountains that was important, it was finding the plant that was going to serve as the greatest challenge, provided the alien garden didn’t pose a greater threat.

John and Sarah had been bonding a bit more on this trip, reminiscing about the past, before everything had happened. “She used to play the cello for the London Philharmonic. I can remember the sounds that it made, the vibrations of the instrument on her body. The smell of the city. The moisture in the air.”

“I remember the food. The taste of good bar-b-cue … a nice juicy steak. It’s so weird to have all these memories, of birthdays and friends.” John agreed.

“It’s so surreal. It happened, but it didn’t happen. Ya know?” Sarah commented. “But, that’s not who we are now. And we’ll never be those people again. We’ll never get to go to those places again, no matter what happens. I’m pretty sure my apartment building doesn’t even exist anymore.”

“Yeah. You know the weirdest part, to me anyway, is scars that no longer exist, or aches and pains that I used to have but don’t anymore. Almost like a phantom limb, I expect the pain to be there, but it’s not.” John said and then realized the insensitivity of what it implied. “Oh, I didn’t mean … when I said that I … it was just an analogy.”

Sarah just kept walking without giving it much thought and said, “Relax big guy, I know what you meant. It’s not like I don’t know how weird this is, for both of us. No hard feelings.” She said looking back up at him for a beat and giving him a strained smile, “This is the mother of all phantom limbs, because I still have to use it. And, if I’m not careful with it I could blow my own leg off! We’re all getting used to this new normal, I suppose.”

They continued traveling like that for two more days before they found the alien garden and began scoping it out. “This is a small garden compared to the last two we’ve seen. Most likely it was just begun recently.” John stated as the three of them knelt behind a small berm that sat between them and the work camp. The alien flora stood no higher than bushes. In comparison to the enormous forest they had gone through on the way to Solos, this was a nursery of underdeveloped dwarf shrubs. “We’ll need to distract them somehow, we don’t really have the weapons or manpower to launch an effective campaign against them right now.”

“What about the people inside?” Jayk asked.

“I wish we could do something to help them. “John lamented. “We can come back once we help Ideo and get the weapons we need. But, right now there’s nothing we can do.” He said showing genuine sadness, but still looking upon them as casualties of war. John was accustomed to making difficult decisions where human lives were concerned, which didn’t sit well with Jayk. To Jayk, they were brothers and sisters — members of the human family. It was hard for Jayk to accept John’s answer, but he knew John was right, especially considering he had bartered his blade for food and lodging and was himself weaponless.

“Alright then, what’s the plan?” Jayk pressured him.

“How do you feel about creating a distraction?” John asked, turning to Sarah.

“I think I can do that.” Sarah said. Although she had trained with the weapon and become extremely proficient with the technology, she hadn’t used it on moving targets before. This would be her first live-fire challenge with the alien device.

“All you have to do is distract them long enough for Jayk to get behind the base of that ridge. Then, he can get up the mountain and search for the plant.” John informed her. “Jayk, once she starts firing, you need to head around the camp and through the garden avoiding the plants. Which, despite their size, could still be deadly so watch your step. Then get up the mountainside. With any luck the plant will be easy to spot. Did the old man give you any specifics about the location of the plants?” John asked.

“Not really. Except that they only grow on the mountain and not in the valley.” Jayk answered.

“Probably an altitude requirement of some sort, then. The higher you can get, the better. You should get a good view of the vegetation from above. Easier to spot the white of the flowers.” John said to Jayk who nodded in agreement.

“If everyone’s ready, we should take the opportunity now.” John suggested turning to Sarah. “I don’t know what kind of distraction …”

“Don’t worry, I got this.” She said as she patted John on the back, stood up and walked silently toward the beasts guarding the work camp entrance. With a whip of her arm she cast off the coat from her shoulders sending it rippling to the ground. Then, in one explosive motion, she dropped to her knees and sent a blast of electrically charged particles at the first beast tearing through it’s torso and striking the wall behind it. Impressed with her own handiwork she stopped for a moment to admire it, giving the other beast time to take aim. She quickly emitted a blast toward it, that sheared its arm off completely, sending it’s weapon tumbling to the ground. “Run Jayk, NOW!” She yelled as she stood up and rushed to the entrance of the camp. Jayk took off like a rabbit leaping over the hilly mound and making a criss-cross dash between the alien vegetation — circumventing the tentacles that reached out in a grasping motion leaving their stunted arms unable to seize him. By the time he reached the foot of the mountain Sarah had attracted an audience of five more of the creatures, who had made their way from within the camp unaware of what they were about to face outside. Jayk looked back in a moment’s hesitation and watched as Sarah spun around dropping flat to the ground while two bolts of electricity crackled above her. She returned fire catching one in the leg and pointed her cannon toward the other blowing a hole through it’s head.

“Wha …” Crawled silently from his lips as Jayk stood in awe of the unhinged display of carnage he was witnessing as Sarah cut through the creatures like they were standing still. A potent combination of acrobatics and a psychophysical connection to the weapon made for a dramatic display of wholesale butchery the likes of which neither Jayk nor John had ever seen before. Sarah spun and twisted, leapt and dropped as she danced her way through the battlefield, and before they knew it she had cut down twenty of the beasts in just a few moments. It was unlike anything either of them had ever witnessed, as if years of pent up rage and aggression had finally been allowed to release, opening a Pandora’s Box of revenge that would take an army to close.

Jayk made the exhausting ascent up the mountain while the battle raged on below. Handgrip-by-handgrip he assiduously scrambled up the mountainside as nimble and surefooted as a goat. As he did so he kept a keen eye open for the white clusters of flowers that indicated the presence of the raceweed. John was crouched behind the small dune and looking on from below, one eye on Sarah and one on Jayk, but neither on himself. So, when he was grabbed from behind by one of the Sky Reapers he was caught completely unawares. The creature gripped him with its talons and tossed him aside as effortlessly as one tosses a coin. John quickly regained his footing and stared up at the beast. Neither of them had a weapon, it would be a battle of unarmed hand-to-hand combat in a true test of his abilities. The creature was better suited for the fight, being designed with all the weapons it needed, hands that ended in razor sharp claws, rows of serrated teeth, twin horns and two massive stumps of legs that rooted it to the ground making it almost impossible to topple.

He was no match for this fight, and he knew it, but he had no choice. The beast lunged for him and John dodged. Having never been in a fight with one before, nor ever having been this close to one before, John wanted to discover as much about his enemy’s abilities as possible before attempting to fight back. They were lumbering giant beasts, and this would be what John could use to his advantage, his own speed. The creature kept grasping and John kept backing away, dodging and ducking, until he saw an opportunity and ran toward it. John planted a foot on one of the creature’s thighs and, using it as a plank, climbed up onto the shoulders of it in one swift movement. He grabbed hold of the horns from behind and kicked off backward using all his weight to bring the beast down onto its back. John had landed on his feet and, with the beast on the ground stunned for a split second, began stomping it’s head with as much fury as he could muster. The creature flailed it’s arms desperately reaching for John’s legs, but he was relentless. The creature’s enormous muscular torso made it so difficult for it to reach behind it’s own head that John had discovered an Achilles’ heel. He kept stomping and stomping and stomping until the face went soft beneath his booted foot. “Arrrrggghhhh!!!!!” John screamed until the creature’s arms went limp and it finally stopped moving. He was breathing furiously, his chest heaving, and his adrenaline pumping as he dropped back onto the ground and just sat there glaring at the monster that lay dead before him. He looked around at last to make sure no more were coming, and caught his breath as a grin slowly appeared on his face and a laugh snuck out from his lips. “Ha!” He was still alive.