• hcmills

Chapter 176: Peilor's best friend

I stare at the eye-crystal—no, the Peilor—residing in my eye socket.

[I’m sure you have a lot of questions,] Suri chimes, her words reverberating up my optic nerve. [How about I give you five minutes, for old times’ sake?]

“What...” I trail off, licking my dry lips as my mind spins. “Is-is that your actual body?”

[It is. The Peilor—well, I suppose I can just say ‘we’ now—are beings born of pure energy, and this Realm’s dominant life-form.]

I blink, or, well, try to. I can feel my right eye-lid attempt but fail to shut. Moreover, as my left eye-lid shutters on its lonesome, my vision falls away—Suri is no longer providing me sight. “Pure energy?” I ask, trying to ignore the disconcerting sensation. “So, you’re, what, a sentient energy crystal of some kind? How are you... wait, are you alive?”

Suri scoffs. [Of course we’re alive. Only three things are required to form life in this Realm: Lavi, Qi, and Espir. When the first two combine into a crystal, it’s really only a matter of time before a mind begins to gestate inside.]

“Sure, that makes perfect sense,” I mutter. “And why, exactly, are you lodged in my eye socket?”

[Yes, I can imagine that may have been an odd thing to wake up to,] Suri chimes. [But it’s perfectly natural, I can assure you. Crystals combining Lavi and Qi don’t form by themselves, they’re formed by lesser beings—creatures of flesh—who require a source of both, so Peilor are always born attached to a host.]

Instead, my brows attempt to rise to my hairline. “I’m sorry—lesser beings?”

Big talk for a friggin’ parasite!

[Ah. Well, the average creature a Peilor matures on is patently stupid—concerned with little but eating and mating—so we’ve come to accept it as our responsibility to guide and direct our host’s attention to more worthy endeavours. It’s really only natural.]

I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this.

“It seems a little irresponsible of you to have abandoned them, then. Should you really be taking up prime real estate on my face right now?”

[While a Peilor’s host stands a far better chance of living a long, fruitful life,] Suri replies. [As immortal beings, we still end up requiring a replacement at some point.]

Great. “And that’s... me?”

[Oh, don’t sell yourself short, darling. You’re much more than a replacement; you’re an upgrade! Like one of those fancy sports cars you humans seem to love.]

I narrow my eye at her. “And in this analogy, you would be... a backseat driver?”

My heart beats in my throat as I wait for the answer.

[Well... something like that, yes.]

My stomach sinks. “I see. And, like, what happens when a being who’s, uh, host to a Peilor, doesn’t agree about a suggested course of action?”

[Well. Let’s just say that’s rarely an issue,] Suri chimes.

Okay, this is definitely bad.

I swallow thickly. “Since you’re being so honest with me, I’m going to ask this one more time... were the void-shifts accidental?”

For a long moment, Suri doesn’t answer.

[No,] she finally chimes, her tone apologetic.

My blood turns to ice, then fire, as fury begins to bubble up inside of me. “So was all that stuff about immigration policy and tiers just bullshit?!”

[Parts of that were untrue, I admit, but the deception was necessary to motivate you,] Suri chimes defensively. [But the tiers, for example, are very real, as is the promotion to the Lustrous tier that I won.]

My brows rocket up to my hairline. “That you won?!”

[Well, yes,] Suri chimes, turning a little awkward. [When we beat Avalan, I became champion of the second season of Humanity Unleashed, with all the rewards that entails.]

I nearly choke on my spit. “Humanity... Unleashed?”

[Think of it as one of those dog training competitions you humans have back on Earth,] Suri helpfully explains. [The players—as in, participating Peilor like me—aren’t allowed to take direct control for the duration, only to guide their hosts along. It’s quite a frustrating experience, but apparently it leads to more interesting footage.]

I can feel the blood drain from my face, as I stagger away from the mirror, from the indelible truth staring me in the eye. I find myself at the window, staring down at the tiny figures below. Hosts, I correct myself. They’re probably all hosts. “So, what,” I bite out, my voice hoarse. “I’m the top dog, and you’re the champion friggin’ handler?!”

[You’re still in a better position for winning,] Suri chimes in what I suppose is meant to be a comforting tone. [Thanks to your efforts, I’ll be able to afford us a far more luxurious lifestyle. Moreover, if you hadn’t made it to the tournament, I wouldn’t even have been allowed to keep you. The network would have auctioned you off to the highest bidder, who might not have cared to take good care of you at all.]

My eye snaps up to meet Suri’s reflection in the window. “Is that what happened to Alec, and the others who remained behind?”

[It is, yes,] Suri chimes. [Sergei has been moaning about it non-stop, it’s been quite annoying.]

While I haven’t heard the name Sergei before, the objective meaning Suri is now lacing her words with tells me it’s Sarge’s real name. They’re alive. Well, that’s something at least.

[Honestly, it’s his own fault, if you ask me,] Suri prattles on. [That what he gets for trying to entertain by being ‘quirky’ so he can grow his fanbase instead of taking the game seriously. Honestly, you were lucky you got me and not one of those show-offs as a guide. Pathetic.]

Good lord, some of them are influencers...

I suppress a shudder, as no matter how horrible that idea is, I actually have more pressing issues on my mind.

“And the people”—I killed—“who died?” I ask, hope flaring for a moment.

[I’m afraid they are in fact dead,] Suri chimes matter of fact. [There have been calls to try and spare more humans for auction, but the Network chose not to invest in the necessary measures, claiming it would undermine the show’s ‘authenticity.’ Personally, I think they’re just trying to lower their production costs and drive up the prizes for human hosts even further by introducing artificial scarcity.]

I dimly notice my hands are shaking, though I’m not quite sure if it’s from adrenaline, panic, or rage.

“Was it all for nought?” I whisper. “Was everything we went through just... entertainment for your people?”

I swear I hear Avalan laughing in the back of my head. Well, I’m not sorry for that dingbat’s genuine death.

[Actually,] Suri chimes. [I’ve been thinking for a while now that the main purpose of Humanity Unleashed has been marketing—I suppose that wouldn’t really make it better from your perspective, though...]

I stare at her reflection incredulous. “Excuse me?!”

[Yes, well, from what I’ve heard, the Network really paid through the nose for the rights to exploit Earth,] Suri explains. [I mean, it’s exceedingly rare for the Host Appraisal Committee to give out a rating of Premium to a newly discovered species, so it’s no wonder all the larger organisations went ballistic in the bidding war.]

“Exploit... Humanity was appraised?” I repeat, my mind spinning once more. Or perhaps still.

[As Premium, yes,] Suri reiterates. [They determined humans to be intelligent—if prone to foolishness—and very trainable. What’s more, the adaptability of your bodies to foreign energies is excellent and with those opposable thumbs, very few physical adjustments are needed.]

“Gee, thanks,” I mumble with all the sarcasm I can muster.

[Honestly, the only negative marks your species received was for your drab appearance,] Suri rattles on. [However, some see even that as a plus, claiming they enjoy getting a blank canvas to work with. I must say that the beauty contest part of the show wasn’t my cup of tea. I followed instructions and stuck to the theme of your batch, of course, but my heart wasn’t really in it.]

“You don’t say,” I reply blandly. “Gosh, who won, then?”

[In your batch? It was Zig, I believe—pretentious douche. Ah, you would only know his host, Calyx. Both the judges and the audience were very impressed with their green eye and gilded skin. I guess that sort of ‘exotic’ look is well-liked, for they received top marks in nearly all categories. I bet the organisation was quite unhappy they ended up making it to the tournament, and thus became ineligible for auction.]

I quietly pinch myself, on the off-chance I’m dreaming. It hurts. We’re screwed, aren’t we?

I close my eye and rub my forehead for a moment. “Suri... do hosts have any kind of legal status in Peilor society?”

[No... not really,] Suri chimes quietly.

We’re so screwed.

[If it’s any consolation, however,] Suri quickly chimes, [your name will certainly go down in history. After all, this will be the first time a Peilor was ever promoted from Solith to Lustrous tier in a single bound! The upper class will bristle at it, of course, and try to find some way to oust me from their ranks—they certainly tried hard enough to sabotage me along the way—but that’s all part of the game. What matters is that I’m a player now, someone who matters.]

I open my eye wide and look up at her. “So they were targeting me! That impact on Big Bortha—”

[Not an accident, no,] Suri chimes. [And the being you dubbed ‘Spider-Troll’ certainly exceeded the conventional limitations set for that Trial. There’s always some of the higher society entering these competitions, you see. They often don’t even do it to climb, just to block others from rising. And of course, they get all kinds of preferential treatment, including the best hosts—brutes like Bruce and Steve, ruthless ones like Dominique and Avalan.]

“What, so I ranked as dirt?” I ask, annoyed despite myself.

[Well, you’ve certainly proven them wrong, haven’t you?] Suri chimes. [Oh, Lio—the Peilor who received Bruce—threw such a fit after Starmother’s decision! He’s on the Council of Stars, you see, and frankly, I suspect he’s the one after the attempts at sabotage during the Seventh and Eighth Trials, though I can’t prove it yet... Either way, there’s no need for you to worry about him; after the ceremony I’ll be of equal status to him, and more than capable of keeping you safe.]

That concern was honestly the furthest thing from my mind, but Suri doesn’t seem to realise.

[Anyway, I know Lio manipulated things behind the scenes to help Bruce win the Hub Two lottery, that sort of thing is just par for the course with those snobs.]

I blink. “Didn’t Samuel... oh.”

[Suddenly decide to cheat, on his behalf?] Suri chimes dryly. [Exactly.]

My heart stutters. “Did you—did you manipulate me into feeling things for—”

[Oh, Starmother, no,] Suri chimes with a chuckle. [Samuel was probably picked because of his feelings. I was quite annoyed by your fascination with Kaitlynn. It led to some really hare-brained decision on your part, too. Well, I suppose it all worked out in the end.]

I fall quiet for a moment, relieved at this revelation.

For a moment, I inanely consider how much time I have left of my five minutes. I smile wanly. “Say Suri, be honest... that rule of allowing only five minutes of questions, was that—”

[Just so that you wouldn’t bore us to death with endless questions?] Suri finishes for me. [Of course it was, Emma. Of course it was. Is there anything else you’d like to know?]

Honestly, the only thing I want right now is to collapse into Kaitlynn’s arms and pretend this is all a bad dream. “Suri, where’s Kaitlynn? Can I please go see her? I need to process all of this.”

[Ah... Yes, well, I’m afraid that might prove a little difficult, Emma,] Suri chimes apologetically. [I mean, I’m not principally opposed to giving you that kind of free reign for a bit, but my schedule is going to be pretty full for the coming time, with the promotion and all that. Moreover, I’d have to schedule a moment with Kai on which he would also be willing to allow Kaitlynn to act on her own. Finally, it might actually be better if we held off on that sort of thing for some time. My sudden rise in Tier is bound to bring a lot of scrutiny after all, and any sign of a lack of control over my host would be considered a grievous faux pas that could result in my demotion.]

I don’t reply, staring at my reflection. At the socket that should contain an eye. At the purple tint of my skin. At the apparently pointless, completely decorative horns.

[You know, the more I think about it, the more I get the feeling that our society isn’t quite equipped to deal with hosts as intelligent as humans,] Suri chimes thoughtfully, like she’s revealing the result of some controversial epiphany. [Maybe that’s something I could try to start bringing about change in. Perhaps the Council could be persuaded to elect a committee on the issue, for example. I mean, the smartest host species we discovered before you humans were the Hoig, and they’re not exactly thrilling conversational partners.]

When even that doesn’t elicit a reaction from me, Suri sighs.

[Well, this conversation was about as horrible as I expected,] Suri chimes wistfully. [And to think I once started out thinking it might be fun to at last reveal everything. Well, don’t worry; you’ll feel much better once I’ve done some quick work on your mind.]

Author's note:

Final chapter of Book Four next week, hope you're enjoying it! ^^

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