Missionary (Parts I & II)

Missionary

The Fall « Missionary » Dirigible Daydreams

tagnone

12

12


PART II: SUVI


Naomi’s trapped in a lucid nightmare. In her mind, other beasts rule - she can still see the tower, feel them: the worms in the dark, curling and twisting around her ankles. Fire burning as distant flares streak like comets through the black cavern. Something screaming. In the shadows where the worms tried to enter, all she sees is Martin’s face. Black blood from his orifices.

There’s a niggling feeling edging at her. A cold hand grips around her forearm. Something’s in her head. She fights the hand, fights the thing in her mind, kicks until she’s sure she’s screaming. It’s the worms, she tells herself. It’s the worms trying to take me again, to dredge up my faults, to make me submit.

But the feeling in her mind is different. It’s new. There’s a wriggle in her ear. A bright, whistle-like shriek tears through her consciousness. She cries out.

Then, a… voice?

You saved me.

The voice is smooth and trickling like water, its words steeped in fear - the same fear she feels herself. Opening her eyes, she looks around, shaking.

There’s no worms. She’s safe.

You saved me. Why? The voice says again. There is no hint of mercy.

“Who… what…”

Cold blue eyes open one at a time, bright orbs in the blackness. In the faint gloom, she sees the crawling thing on her lap, peering up. A rock. It’s holding a rock to her head.

Something’s pounding in her right ear. Shit. What is it?

A wave of emotion passes through her, as the creature speaks once more.

Answer me. Or I’ll make you die.

That wakes her up. Everything’s a haze of pain and nightmares, but death speaks louder than anything else.

“I… you can talk?”

Answer me.

There’s a long pause. Naomi traces the edge of her right ear, only to find it covered in slimy, fuzzy tendrils. A growing horror takes root inside of her when she realises there’s a second heartbeat in her head.

“My ear… what?”

Answer-

“You were squirming, the worms, I-” She cries out in pain. She’s been clenching her hands to her sides, and it twisted something by mistake. “I don’t… know?”

The creature wavers slightly.

You don’t know. Not quite a question. More a statement. It’s skeptical.

“I’m telling the truth. I don’t know.

But it was your choice.

Your choice. Naomi tastes nothing but bitter in her mouth. It was spur of the moment, what she did, something built on adrenaline rather than feelings - but the creature is right. It was her choice. Just like the tower. Just like Martin. Just like Shelter island.

She doesn’t like those kinds of reminders very much at all.

“Go away.”

At last, she feels the weight on her lap leave her. The two eyes are gone.

Everything in her knows she shouldn’t trust things like this. Every piece of training, every nugget of information drilled into her head during wartime says she shouldn’t give herself away, but Naomi’s tired - far too tired to give a shit.

She’s lonely.

“Wait,” she murmurs, voice scratchy and tired. “S-stop.”

Silence.

Why?

She says nothing for a while.

“You haven’t told me what you did to my ear.”

The four eyes glimmer open again, this time to her left. They’re a few feet away, watching with a strange curiosity. Emotions, emotions so beautiful.

A Ransnak. Thought-breaking grub, old relic of the empire of the High-Hyarot-by-the-River. I had been saving it to use on my captors, but it seems their identity has changed. The words are cutting and to-the-point, leaving little room for error even if they’re nonsense.

“You meant to control me.”

So I did.

There’s nothing but a faint breathing - her breathing, she realises.

“It didn’t work,” she says at last.

I know.

“Is this why I know your language?”

Bright blue eyes blink.

Yes, the creature says at last. Those who survive it, they can understand any words. Any tongues. Wordsmiths.

“Oh.”

There isn’t much Naomi can say to that. Cold silence.

I thought you would fight me. the watery voice murmurs. Like you did Un’h. I don’t know why you didn’t. I heard you fighting - before. There was so much light.

“Un’h?”

The Champion of Goldsword. Un’h of afterworlds. The one who was with me.

It’s all nonsense. It’s all fucking nonsense. Naomi’s head pounds from it all. Absently, her fingers twist and rub against the strange stone she’d retrieved from the creature’s corpse, the stone that made the sword.

Fire is what killed it. She needs to find her matches, and soon.

“Your Un’h tried to choke me.”

The eyes grow brighter for a moment, but it’s probably her imagination.

Is he dead?

“Yes. I burned him.”

Cold water drips, slow and beautiful. There is no other sound, nothing but water and Naomi’s careful breaths, brushstrokes in a noiseless air.

Good, the creature whispers at last in a voice she can barely hear, air wheezing past like wind in a reedswamp. That’s good.

They speak no more. Naomi’s fine with that. There’s little else to say, anyway.


It knows she’s there before she announces herself, even though she’s been as quiet as she’s able - for all she could do with the pilfered eggs in her rucksack.

You’re back, the creature’s icy voice needles in her mind. Eyes light up the dark.

“And you’ve not left,” Naomi mutters, sighing under her breath. She dumps her luggage on the wet floor with an unceremonious smack, fiddling in her pocket for her matchbox. She found it again, after searching the tunnels. There’s one row of matches left - enough for a few more cooking trips. Food’s important after all, and stores from her last catch had just run out.

The creature only looks on, eyes blinking coldly.

“I told you that you could leave,” she reiterates, louder this time. She’s not lying either. The beast has been sitting there watching her for a long time now, what feels like weeks. It’s not healthy, and given how it seemed a prisoner…

Not much places to go. The air in the shaft above them is humid, but Naomi knows they’re far away from any worms abroad. She strikes the match, fire piercing the gloom. The creature - its strange limbed body and multicoloured complexion - leans forward, something caught in its gaze that she can’t quite place.

After adding to the dungpile so the fire would burn a little longer, she turns. Four eyes have been on her back for a while now - it’s not… comforting. Not at all.

“You’re staring.”

The little monster’s eyes only grow brighter. The grandeur and strangeness of them to Naomi has long since worn off, replaced with little but annoyance.

So I am.

“I-” Deep breaths, Naomi. “You could stop, you know.”

No.

For God’s sake. She’s not sure if she said that allowed or not - like that matters.

Naomi sets herself down with a squelch, the wet floor caressing her aching backside. The fire’s warm. For all her own emptiness, she can’t help but feel something when she looks into the flames.

What are you?

The creature’s cold voice cuts through the quiet. Naomi near jumps. It hasn’t spoken in a while.

“You mean, my name?”

They always want to know names.

No. What are you. You have flame-brought, it says, gesturing to the fire she’s just lit as if anything at all it’s saying makes a lick of sense. Gift from gods. How do you… work?

“I- What?”

I’ve seen a thousand-thousand things in my lives. Made a thousand-thousand enemies, too. But… I’ve never seen anything quite like you.

Of course. It suddenly clicks together in her head. Naomi sighs.

“You didn’t seem to give a shit so far. Why now?”

Cold water drips silently in the dead air. At last, four eyes flutter, pulsing radiant blue. When the voice edges in her head once more, it’s almost jovial.

We are… stuck with each-other, are we not?

No. You can leave. I know you can leave.

Can a friend not know another friend’s skin?

“We aren’t friends,” she retorts - and it’s true. They aren’t friends. She barely knows the creature. “And skin? Come on, what does that even mean?”

Swirling emotions in the gloam.

But we could be. Friends, I mean.

No. Naomi’s putting a stop to that. Loneliness is all she’s known for years, and some strange-eyed dwarf she’s accidentally saved in a tower worlds away from home isn’t going to fix that. Besides, loneliness is comfortable. It’s safe. Friends, family, partners… that just leads to more death. More loss. More pain.

Martin… And somewhere beyond that - a lost fiance’s cruel words, cutting at her soul.

No, no friends. She’s not good for people. When she speaks again, her voice is hard.

“I don’t know if this is the, connection, or whatever’s in your little head, but we are not friends. I have a… “

Her mission. Survive. She’s done that, hasn’t she? She’s already been doing that.

It doesn’t need to know that.

“I have a mission. I’m not supposed to get distracted.”

A sound fills her mind, many colours besides. It almost feels like laughter.

We all have missions, friend, it murmurs, voice tinged with mirth. Even those Udduk-Mal, the children of Ub-Ara - the great All-Maker-of-Heavens - have friends, as faceless and black and cold as they are. You are fooling yourself. Now… tell me what you are.

The names it says. Ub-Ara. Udduk-mal. They mean nothing to her. It’s all meaningless.

“Can’t you just look inside me?” Naomi says, voice half-begging. She’s irked, now. “The connection-”

It does not- I do not think it works that way. I can only… it pauses, eyes shutting. I can only feel what you feel. See some glimpses… if you let me. And you can do the same for me.

“Oh.”

Shredded shadows, distant groans. The dark weaves around them like a tattered cloak.

“I’m a human,” she says at last.

A… human. The creature tastes the words on its lips, sweeter than wine.

“Happy now?” A part of her knows this creature would ask more of what that means later, but she pushes that down anyway.

It says nothing for a little.

Suvi, it whispers, like it means everything and nothing all at once.

“What?”

That is the name the People of the Lamp gave me. What Un’h called me, it pauses, the sound of shuddering limbs clicking into place loud in the silent space. When it speaks again, its voice is sad. I do not know what I am. So I gave you a - my - name.

Naomi’s about to talk back, to lash out, but the words catch in her mouth. She doesn’t know how she knows it, but she does. It’s telling the truth, as plain as day.

It’s as lost as she is.

“Naomi,” she whispers back, voice as shaky as a schoolgirl. She shouldn’t be embarrassed by it, but she is. This is vulnerable - vulnerable in a way she’s not felt in a long, long while. “That- that’s my name. You gave me yours, and-”

Silence. It’s not speaking anymore.

It was a mistake to tell it, she knows that now. It went against everything she's ever known, but - she's stuck here. It couldn't hurt, right?

Things can always hurt you. Remember the island? Remember-

Shut up.

I like friend better, it says at last, shutting its eyes and curling away. Naomi's almost relieved. She doesn't like it when the bad memories creep in.

A strange feeling lurches in her gut. She shrugs it off, grabbing a stolen egg. She has to hurry. The fire will go out soon, and if the worms came back…

No. It’s best not to think of that.

She sets to work.


Things become repetitive again, after that. Naomi goes out, hunts, comes back as always. The only difference now is she has someone to talk to.

A friend.

She never admits it, refuses to - but really, it’s nice. A little creepy, but nice.

She's made a proper spokestick again, out of hardened wormspit. It's not as good as her old one, but it's enough to cut through eggs. That's all she needs.

At the end of each scavenge and she comes home with a meal, they whisper about little nothings in the dark as the fire burns low - day-to-day struggles. Suvi always asks for a story, she gives one. Nothing that means anything, of course. It listens, tells her things back. They carry this on for a long time. Speak of many things.

What a human meant. Why Naomi’s dressed as she is. What her new companion is - it’s never clear on that count, something about a snake. The nature of the tower - of the Bab-lim, as Suvi calls it. Suvi doesn’t know much more than her about that. The worms. She has a name for those now, a name Suvi gave her too - Rath-wyrms. It said the beasts were wonderful, too.

Funny.

Yes, they talk. Never about their pasts, though. That was off-limits. Naomi doesn’t want to be the first to toe that line, either.

The creature - Suvi - it’s still healing. Naomi never asks why its former captors had wounded it so much. It has its secrets - and she has her own. Even if her mission’s now shared, she’s not going to break that rule. Breaking that means personal interest.

Personal interest means caring, and Naomi’s not ready to do that.

Not yet.


Talking is tiring, sometimes. So is silence. Naomi wishes there were more options.

You’re a runner, Suvi says suddenly. Naomi’s half asleep, and it takes her a moment to realise who the creature’s talking to.

“H-huh-wha- are you,” she pauses suddenly, stopping to rub her eyes. Her mouth’s very dry. Something stirs, foreign emotion - faint… amusement? She scowls: Suvi’s laughing at her. “What did you just say?”

A runner.

“I’m trying to sleep.”

Those four strange eyes are looking at her again. She still remembers the first time she told Suvi of sleep. Her companion had been mystified.

Apparently, where Suvi had come from there was no such thing as sleep. Everything was a dream by the Black Lake.

So of course the creature keeps talking. Damn it all.

I can see it in your eyes. They have that look about them.

She stares at it. Might as well humour the little imp.

“A ‘look’.”

Clicking sounds.

Like you’re afraid the world will break if you step back into it. Like it has broken already, so you shed your skin and left. A cracked egg.

Naomi's careful mask cracks. There’s no way the creature knows. It can’t.

“ I- I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she mutters, face stone-cold.

What if it does know? Their connection doesn’t allow her to read Suvi’s mind, but maybe it was lying. Maybe it could. Maybe-

Yes you do. Runner.

Deflect, deflect.

She turns over, lying back down and shutting her eyes.

“Going to sleep.”

You can still hear me. You can always hear me. And I you.

“Didn’t need the reminder.”

Sleeping silence. She hopes Suvi will drop it, but the better half of her also knows that imps don’t let sleeping ghosts lie.

If you weren’t a runner, you’d have left here by now. Gone home.

She turns back, standing up and glaring at her companion half-cloaked in shadow. “The Hell does that even mean? Nothing you say makes sense, and you always expect me to just, get it. Newsflash, this ‘connection’ is a bloody scam.” She pauses, taking in a deep breath. “And your little hypothetical? I’d still be fucking running then. Doesn’t matter if I’m here nor there.”

Curious eyes watched her, cold and judgeless. She knew the emotion in them, though they were as alien to her as she was to it: personal interest. The thing she feared most.

Yes. You’re right. It doesn’t.

“So, we can drop this.”

Sleep’s about to take her. Almost there, almost-

You’d be running back, then.

Fuck this.

“How can I run back, if I don’t very well know how?” It’s a valid question, really. She doesn’t know how.

Her mission’s all that matters, anyway.

There’s always a way. You lie to yourself, runner. You lie in complacency and call it valour.

Naomi’s hands curl, all the pent up emotions she’s forced down over the past however-long bubbling up to the surface. Her superiors would chide her. Remove her, even - chapter her, send her home. Bury her.

Calm yourself. Calm.

“So why are you here, then?” she asks, teeth gritted. She’s calm.

That’s our difference.

“Huh?”

I never said I wasn’t one.

“Wasn’t what now?” Her words are pointed, laden with exasperation and stripped of all trained tactfulness.

A long pause. Distorting murmurs from above as the air grows hotter.

I never said I wasn’t a runner.

For a moment, all they can see are each other’s eyes. But only for a moment. Naomi storms out after that, her own tiredness be damned. The food’s running low. She’s needed to get more anyway.


She’s spent what feels like days away from the little alcove, but in the end, she’s drawn back like a fish to a lure. Naomi’s not sure why. Maybe it’s the ennui, or the aimlessness, her own loss of self. Maybe it’s the guilt that festers in her chest. Maybe it’s nothing at all, just that damn connection forcing her back, the one she never chose to have in the first place - making her feel like she has something to prove.

When she returns there lies Suvi, sitting squat on its haunches, tapping little stones in the dark. Its star-eyes shine bright.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

She stands there, dumbly.

“You’re right,” she says at last.

You’re back. It says in turn.

“No, I- you’re right. I am a runner.” She takes a shaky breath. “But they didn’t call me that. Back home, I mean.”

Oh?

“My captain. He called me Lowflier.”

A pause. It’s just a minute, but it feels like eternity. Then the imp wheezes, speaking once more.

You must be cold. Sit down.

She squints down at the thing for a little, then does as it says - her own fears of attachment be damneed.

So. Tell me, Lowflier. It tastes the title at last on its lips. Tell me what stories you found today.

She laughs, a sound so strange in such a weird place, but a welcome sound regardless. It’s like they’d never fought.


Her last two matches. They have enough food now to last them near a year on out - but Naomi knows she’ll miss the light. Something about fire is comforting here. The flames lick the cavern floor like the red tongue of some ravenous dog.

Hair on the back of her neck stands on end. Suvi’s watching her again.

“What now?” she asks, turning around. Her voice isn’t as hard as it once was to her companion - but it’s not soft, either.

Can one not simply think of things in the dark?

Naomi shakes her head, leaning close to the fire to warm her hands. She thinks she understand Suvi well enough to never trust what it says.

“It’s never just thinking with you.”

So you think.

Naomi scoffs, biting into the wormflesh egg. The acidic taste, something she’s grown numb to now, sinks down her throat into her warm, tired stomach. Tastes enough like chicken to suffice.

Suddenly, the air turns white-hot. Above in the gloom, Naomi sees it - she can only see the whites of its spines, but she knows intimately what it is. A great bull-worm, moving to and fro distantly above their space, so large its body could never even hope to enter. She knows from the previous times it cannot get to them, but the sheer scale of it all always boggles her mind.

For a moment, she’s back there - in the pit of pits, being dragged from all she knew by foreign beasts and lost gods unimaginable. For a moment, she’s dying.

Then she’s back - Suvi’s eyes fixed close to her own. Clammy arms wrap around her.

“What are you doing.” Her lips curl back in disgust. The fuck?

You were drifting. I…

“Get off.”

So it does. The white worms continue to wheel about in the wider cavern above of which they can only see a little glimpse of through the fissure-top. They care nothing for either of them.

Suvi doesn’t ask her for stories this time.

She tells them anyway.

“When I was… when they had me. They showed me things.”

The secrets of the Rath-wyrms are prized by many.

“They said they were refugees. I think they’re here to escape something. An archer…**

Moans above them. A screaming creak. For a moment, Naomi thinks the scraping might start again, and her heart beats louder and louder. Star-eyes simply stare, unblinking.

Old things, they are. The ones who owned me, the Lamp-children - they called the Rath-wyrms gods. Held them sacred.

“You’ve said that name before. Lamp-children. Who are they?”

Un’h, the one you fought - he was one of them. A champion among champions, a fearless revolutionary.

“I killed him.”

As you have said before, many many times.

The dark suddenly feels too near. Too close. The sword-piece she retrieved from her fight with Un’h in what feels like ages past burns in her pocket.

“Why are they called that? ‘Lamp-children’?” she asks, desperate to distract.

They named themselves that, of course. The People of the Lamp, the sons and daughters of dust. Built their whole world around a lantern, before it fell - a lonely light in a sea of dark, their hazy cities ever-cluttered about it like stars around a black hole. Always too close. Always on the precipice, about to be sucked in forever.

There’s a quiet lull to Suvi’s words. A lull she likes.

“You say this like you’ve been there.” It’s a stupid question Naomi already knows the answer to, but she asks it anyway. Anything to fill the silence - to take her away from memory.

Swirling emotions. Suvi’s voice is tinged now with a strange softness.

I was a child too, once. A child of a people enslaved, used. Spat out by the Lamp. The creature paused, its sticky hands fiddling with the stones they loved so much. Click. Clack. Click. Yes, I have been there. I was born there, after all.

Something remains hidden still in those words. Something left unsaid.

“You said you were a runner. You had the maggot planned to use on someone else.”

Yes. I planned to use it on Un’h - I told you that. She did. You see, I was his… shrinesword, in that life when we’d lived by the dark sea. Whore, if you are less kind with words. Prepared vats for him for the ceremonies, chrysalis-shrouds in the temples for his followers when they would come to worship before his presence. Fought for him when the cities died. Bedded him. Did everything for him.

Its sadness was palpable.

“I’m sorry, I had… I had no idea.”

Empty words.

It all makes sense: the cuts on Suvi’s skin, the scarring around the creature’s eyes, the brands in its pale flesh.

Peace. You did not know. What is done is done.

Most of the former spiel meant little to Naomi, the parts that did mean something remaining unanswered. Emotions aren’t her thing - she won’t press further about that. One word, though….

“Chrysalis?”

The temples had those everywhere. The Mudmouths, our priests, they called them ghost-catchers. ‘Hang them up on highspikes’, they’d say, all fat and drunk on soulsweet. ‘Watch them flutter and fill with souls and stories. Watch them soar.’ Suvi trailed off, silent for a little. I hung up millions in my time there, and I had neither soul nor tale to show for it.

“You are a slave there, then.”

A part of her thinks of 0059, the strange amalgamation of metal and flesh that was picked to be their guide in the tower. There are too many slaves in this world, her drop-commander had once said to her. Slaves to others, slaves to themselves…

Was. I escaped. I used to live in a city they called Erub, god-grove of the amber wardens of the south. A large place, many streets, many nests - very beautiful. The ancients had suspended it above the waters so its tallest towers touched the surface of the seas as if to embrace it. Not that I got to see them much, anyway. Besides-

“Suspended?” Naomi isn’t sure she heard that right.

So now of all times you ask questions?

Naomi crossed her arms, leaning back. The fire cracked a little.

“Cities where I come from don’t tend to hang.”

You come from a strange place, then.

“Sure,” she replies, nonplussed. “What’d they even hang it from anyway?”

Suvi paused, four eyes looking above them both in the colder dark. The worms were gone now, but Naomi still felt their residual presence roosting on high.

In that dark sea, there are many bones left over. Skeletons of older things - skeletons of Rath-wyrms. Naomi takes in a deep breath, leaning closer to the fire as Suvi continues his tale. There wyrms like these here are held sacred, as I said. Old fools light hannoth-lights in their name, sing songs, as if things like that might listen. The city of Erub where I lived was built in the skull of an old wyrm. That’s how it hung.

“So your entire world… filled with these, these things.” She gestures above them, eyes wide.

No. None living, at least. Only skeletons.

“These worms got that large?”

Some, bigger than universes. The People of the Lamp believe that wyrmspit embalmed the space between worlds, that all reality is bound by their lifeblood. The black sea there - it was full of their corpses, corpses the mothfolk hoped would rise again someday. Set things right.

Something in her companion’s tone is acidic. The emotions from their connection, harsh and bitter.

“You don’t sound like you believe in any of that.”

Whatever makes you say such a thing?

“I can feel it.”

Never mistake a humble one’s skepticism for a lack of belief, Lowflier. It crawls off its haunches, neck twitching unnaturally in the red light. I’ve seen the space between universes for myself. There are more things than the dead wyrms of their dark sea that lie in the reaches of that Black River. Perhaps the moths were - are - right. Perhaps they are not. It is not one’s place to judge.

Burning fire. Burning flames. Naomi’s stomach growls. She pulls out an eggslice she’s skewered, nibbling on the edges before passing a chunk to Suvi. It takes her a moment to realise Suvi’s staring at her again, watchful stars glimmering blue.

Wha,” she says, mouth full.

Eggs like those, it’s just funny to me.

She swallows.

“Why?”

Back where I lived - they were a symbol. Represented a new beginning, a cesarean birth. One of my old tasks given to me by Un’h was to bathe them, to kiss the eggs before ceremony. A whore to give life to death - that’s what the mudmouths said, anyway.

It tears off the piece she gave it, swallowing it whole with a loud gulp. Naomi squints.

“But… you’re eating it. Right now. We’ve been doing it this whole time.”

Tells you how much I respect their gods, no? It spat bitterly in her mind. I’d have been killed, you know. Had the civil war not started and Un’h needed me, I’d be dead.

“War?” For a moment all Naomi can see is her own war, the one she fought in, the one she…

Suvi continues before she can get trapped again.

The Children of the Lamp were ever-divided, but always held together by their web of laws - divine laws and treaties between tribes and clans immeasurable. Mud-mouth after mud-mouth, hero after hero had held them up the same. Suvi squelches a little, eyes bugging out for a moment in that way it’s often done. Naomi’s used to it by now. But such laws don’t last forever. Something in me feels - knows - that you know that better than anyone.

She can only nod. It’s right. She does know - knows and hates herself for it.

Worshipping a triple goddess of change can tear apart universes. So it did. The people of the seven cities in the cloudseas past Amar - the place of the brown moths to the east - they forsook the old laws, turned to strangers bearing gifts from other worlds. Strangers with honeyed words. Images flit in her head, snatches of colour. Red, white, blue. Naomi doesn’t know what it means.

Used the foreigners’ weapons to fight wars with the other cities, drained the Black Sea dry. It tore their own apart, in the end. Tore apart everything. Nothing but ghosts are there now. Ghosts and faded dreams, memories of waning moons…

“You and Un’h got out.”

We did. He took me. We left. A whore and a hero, departing for foreign lands with a motley crew of insurgents. Songstuff really, isn’t it?

Naomi doesn’t laugh at that.

“Sure.” She finishes eating, putting the parts of the egg uneaten back into her satchel. Leaning to the side, her tired eyes watch the flames dance.

“Why come here, then? Why did Un’h have you with him?”

Suvi pauses, eyes blinking a little.

Asylum-seekers beget desperation, do they not? Desperation from lost souls. Un’h sought the worms here, a last ditch effort on his part. Old scrolls wax pretty stories of how the Rath-wyrms sung all things together from dreams. I suppose he wished to sacrifice me. ‘A life for a world returned’. A song for a song. Suvi scoffs, but its voice in her mind seems hollow. A jape, really. When things are trapped in a land of death and hazy dreams for so long… they lose their grasp on what’s real and not. What’s a dream, after all, when you live in it?

Naomi says nothing for what feels like forever, staring into the gloam as she’s so often done. Thoughts trickle through her head like water. Dreams, conversations, orders. Lost memories. She knows what Suvi means, knows it better than anyone.

She’s been living in a nightmare for nearly half a decade.

The words come out of her mouth before she can stop them.

“What are we, then?”

What? For a moment, Naomi can almost imagine the creature’s surprised.

“”Are we… lost?”

The words hang like the cities in Suvi’s stories, laden with an emotion that even Naomi cannot place.

Stones in its hands, clicking.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

We’re runners, no? Suvi says at last. Runners… runners are always lost.

Click.

She shuts her eyes at last, and sleeps. Blue stars reign in her dreams.


Tears. Sweat. Blood. Naomi wakes up gasping, unsure which she’s covered in. There’s salt crusting her eyes, and she can’t see anything. It’s too dark. All she hears is thrumming in her mind. Thrumming in the dark.

Shit.

She sits up, not wanting to go back to sleep again. She knows better than to dwell on old thoughts brought by nightmare, but if she didn’t she’d have assumed she was back there. The VT. America.

Blood on snowy beaches. Winter stars.

Everything’s faster now, faster and frantic - breaths quickening, heart spiking. Not there, not there, not-

Lowflier. Suvi’s voice.

Not there, not-

Lowflier! Low-

None of that.

Breathing. Use the techniques he taught you. Rust. Breathing deeper, fuller. Rust’s words are good. They’re grounding. For Cent- for your mission. Distant memory takes her.

Only takes one war to steal your soul, her old drop-commander had spat out once, his eyes bright and glistening as she looked on from the crowd. Her unit was being sent into Connecticut at the time. While America had collapsed and already surrendered what little scraps of itself that remained to Central, the effort in peace-keeping had required her service five years longer. One war, and you can’t go back. A soul’s not an easy thing to retrieve once it’s gone.

He’d been a grey, grizzled man, lots of feathers to his arm, lots of titles to his name - though she can’t remember them much now. She’d seen very little of the worst of the wars before that, and when her loan battalion had been sent to the newly-christened VDTs, she’d felt terrified. Her work earlier in the war with repairs had proven her worth enough, however. The older man had liked her.

We’ll make a trooper out of you yet, lowflier.

She vomits on the floor. The soup’s lost its taste, and it’s just gunk. It takes her a moment to realise Suvi’s right next to her now, cold eyes watching.

“G-go away,” she chokes out, tears still taking her. The noise still feels real. The air on her skin.

Her companion’s eyes twist in the dark, bobbing sideways. She knows the creature’s confused.

I’ve never felt this kind of… emotion before, Suvi says, voice quiet in her mind.

“What?”

What is it? The words are guileless - innocent.

A part of Naomi wants to either shut down or lash out - but the better part of her knows that Suvi just doesn’t get it. She chuckles mirthlessly.

“Grief. Pain. I dunno.” She pauses, tears still streaming. Words are catching in her throat. She hasn’t cried like this for years. A part of her had felt like she’d been immune to it for a while. Guess even I’m no Protector at the end of it all. “You feel it when- when you care about things, and… then you lose them.”

She doesn’t mention the boredom of it all, or the tedium, or the hollowness. She knows that’s very much the only thing Suvi’s capable of feeling, anyway.

A moment passes by.

Do you always have it?

“The Hell’re you talking about?”

It hurts.

The spots in the dark play tricks on her eyes. Her cheeks are still wet from weeping.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be, Suvi.”

You’re always hurting. In little pieces inside. I didn’t know what it was before, but…

“Listen, can I just, I need to-” Breathe. Breathe. “I need to sleep. I know you never do, but I- I need to.”

Suvi’s eyes flash. More damn confusion.

But, why?

“Why what.” Anger builds in her chest - fused with grief, pain, fear.

I know you don’t want to do that. Sleep. So why do it?

“Because,” she grinds out. “It’s just, it’s just better that way, I-”

Running again, Lowflier?

“Fuck you.” And she means that, with every fibre of her being.

No more words. She’s too tired of that.

The whirring in her dreams stops her from saying anything for much longer, anyway.


It’s pitch-dark still. She’s been drifting in and out of sleep for hours. No more tears anymore - just hollowness. Suvi’s always with her. Always watching.

You aren’t… grief-filled. Not anymore. Blue eyes flutter. Just… tired.

“Stunning observation, Suvi,” she snaps out. “Haven’t I made it clear I-”

You never told me your story,

Fuck.

“There really isn’t much to tell, I -”

I may not be a long-knower of you or your kind. But I see your burdens. Your wants.

“Bold words for an escaped prisoner.” Bold words for a whore, is what she was really going to say, but she knows that’s just cruel. She’s had friends that were prostitutes before. She knew how the world works. Some people like it, some people don’t. Some people are forced.

Bold words for a friend. You hide. Why?

“Hide?”

I see worlds burning in your eyes. Sudden sounds bereave you. You always, twitch. Why do you hide, Lowflier? Why make yourself so lonely?

The images flash before her eyes. Her drop commander’s face, blood running from his chest from the shrapnel in his gut, the shrapnel he took for her. Her father’s face now, eyes crying. She’s just shot his favourite vase in an episode. Then her brother, hugging her before she left with her battalion, the first time. Then her Mother, dead eyes listless as Naomi says she’s going away again. And then… her fiancé, screaming nothings back at her that she never cares about anyone but herself, after a nasty row they’d had earlier that day.

But that’s it. That’s all. I can’t do this kind of life anymore, Jacobi. I just- I can’t.

It was raining that night when he left. She couldn’t even see her own flat after that, only the gunfire of memory. The door slamming was too similar. A helicopter had passed low outside, just a commercial one, but it didn’t matter. All she could hear was whirring, whirring of them. Her commander’s face, white, red, and blue, hollow on the dull cement as his guts bled out.

You know, for someone from a loan battalion, you’re pretty damn good, Rust had said to her once.

But she’s not there. She’s here, in the dark - talking to an imp. An imp.

“It… It’s my lot in life. It’s what I’m good at, see.” Yes. It’s all she’s good at. She can’t do anything else anymore, it’s all too tedious, too boring, too clean. “I-”

Lies.

“I’m beginning to hate this bloody link.”

No, it makes you happy. I can tell.

Happy? Is he serious?

“No, this-”

Why?

“Listen, if you’re just gonna cut me off, I-”

I’ll keep doing this until you tell me your story.

Fine!

Fine?

Fine!

Silence. Silence and cold, but it’s nothing she’s not used to. It’s like the whole cavern’s watching her.

Well?

She hates the imp’s impatience.

“This isn’t a good idea.”

It cannot be worse than not talking of it, no? Will the bad thing come back if… you say it aloud?

Shaky breath, shaky whispers.

“I dunno. I’m afraid.”

Of what?

“It’s one thing, knowing- knowing you’re a monster in private. You can, you can shelve that kind of thing in the back of your head, forget about it. It’s like it’s not there if you don’t say it out loud, right? But- talking about this, I- I-”

When did her hands start shaking?

The faintest tinge of Suvi’s own feelings sweeps into her. Stark remorse. Stark empathy.

I have known many monsters, many ancient and terrible things in my lives. You are none of them.

“You don’t understand.” The words ring false in her ears. This creature might not know grief of its own, but it certainly can feel hers.

Make me, then. Its eyes shine bright in challenge.

It doesn’t understand, but it wants to. That’s more than anyone’s been able to do for her in a long while. Naomi takes a shaky breath, one final time. Then everything spills out.


Naomi’s served many different people in her lifetime: commanders and captains, bail bondsmen and revolutionaries. Churches. Killed many people, too.

At the end of things It all boils down to a singular, waking philosophy, one that’s kept her sobered for years: there’s no such thing as endings. Life and humanity - it’s trapped on a pendulum that swings. Right, left, good, bad - it’s a rusted ferris wheel, like the one she used to see whirling round in summer nights as a young girl on the Dublin docks.

Suffice to say, when the great shift came at last - Naomi had not been surprised. Endings, beginnings - it was just another spin of the wheel. She needed the bond money anyway.

The end of the world, many were calling it, one last golden, screaming sunset over Appalachia. The day America died, dragging the old Protectors along with it. Two weeks was all it had taken, two weeks for that Tricolour Curtain of naval prowess and sturdy ship-craft, both conventional and lightly anomalous alike, isolationist and proud, strong and tall against the Central Bloc - to fall.

For Naomi it had first just been a normal day. She’d gone fishing with Jacobi, went hunting in the woods. Sang hymnals at the parish church thereafter. When the news came on the radio, when her father had looked at her with those eyes of his, she just knew what had happened. What she had to do.

Talked and ate with her family in the following days. Her boyfriend proposed, she’d accepted it with a laugh and smile. She’d wanted to spend the world away then, live in peace in the countryside, but she knew in her heart she could not. She was her family’s eldest daughter. She had her duties, and she would do them, like the beloved daughter she was.

So the pendulum had swung, and so it swung hard.

A rush of memory. Registered, enlisted. Her father’s job would be secured now - despite him still not being naturalised. Her mother could be happy. A teenaged boy with red hair fated to die someday sat on the ledge of the top floor of a belltower at the corner of it all, watching her with strange curiosity. Watched her as she emptied a gun in her garden.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

She said her goodbyes on the dockyard. Her family first, then her pastor, then him. Images. Jacobi’s face wet with tears as they shared one last kiss, the radio-chatter their witness. Sweet nothings and sad eyes.

If I don’t get back…

Hush, hush, he’d said, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead. She’d felt more things back then, kissed him back too. Don’t think of that.

Smogship cruisers flying dirty white flags on the grey Atlantic. Storms. Crashing waves. They called it the Vee now. It’d been only three months since the bombs had hit the mainland; when her battalion arrived in Chesapeake, it was snowing. The air smelled and tasted of smoke and salt. Little did she know at the time, but that would be the only weather she’d see for two years of Peacekeeping.

They had to wear special helmets when they landed. The snows were amnestic.

Don’t stay out too long in them without these or everything’ll bleed together. The effects are different for everyone, but I wouldn’t chance it anyway. Don’t want to become a vegetable, do you?

She’d been proud then, proud to represent and stand for a country, her country, that Central had admittedly not treated the most seriously in the past - Ireland was barely a liability to them, yet another acquisition accrued in the golden years but a few decades prior. However the case of the matter, to those in Paris Regional Command it was necessary to send in only enough to keep the peace, and no more - thus her loan battalion along with others from various other small compatriot nations had apparently seemed perfect selections for such a task at hand.

So she’d smiled. Smiled and fought. Proud and strong, Naomi. Proud and strong.

Friendships forged. They’d gone up and down the Eastern seaboard. Negotiations, guard-duty, reinforcement of borders - mostly surprisingly mundane, really. There would always be unrest, of course, but the fighting that she was trained for had been manageable. She was good at that. Listening to instructions. There was chaos too, but it was more a game in those days - brothers and sisters in arms, restoring peace together.

When she first met Rust he’d been but a captain. They’d helped people out of a burning building together. A tall man like him seemed larger than life at first, all grey hair and medals and feathers and sharp features like cut marble, a permanent scar over the left side of his face - one ear missing from some previous battle or another. But in time they became tenuous friends. He’d helped train her sector. Beyond his fearful looks, it had turned out he also had a heart of gold, smiling and laughing despite everything that life had taken from him. He was human. That was what made this bearable.

Whenever he put on his uniform, he’d pin some tacky cheap medal on last on top of everything else, all bright colours and plastic edges. O.A.A. She’d asked him about it one day, not really expecting an answer. He gave one anyway.

Orphaned by Anomalous Action, he’d explained with a light chuckle, crinkled eyes glazed over with a memory. Saved a street runt from being killed in an explosion back in Moscow. Gave him a life, you know. Wouldn’t have had it otherwise, parents had been dead for years.

He’d leaned back in his chair.

You wanted to know why I have this medal on, huh? He lit a cigarette, smoke trailing off in the air. It’s because it helps me remember the real reason why I’m here. It’s not for glory, or fame, any of that horseshit. No. It’s to help people. It’s to ‘save them from a world that won’t do anything’ - to save them from themselves.

Fancy words.

He’d laughed at that.

Not mine, I’m afraid. My trainer’s. I think they’re good ones, though.

What if we can’t? Save them, I mean, she’d asked pointedly, firing a gun into a target across from them. The bullet had hit just off-centre. It was the shooting range - they’d been practicing then. One of the less cold days. There was no need for headgear.

Of course you can’t save everyone, that’s the first thing you ever learn out here - in war. Doesn’t stop people like me from trying, though. He furrowed his brow, thoughtful. Best thing anyone can do is try.

That night she'd stayed up long past curfew, Rust's words lingering in her mind. He'd been so earnest. Few people she'd met in her life said things like that openly. Fewer still had ever said them to her like he had and meant it.

The devastation, the pain, the fear, the torture that the anomalous had wreaked upon the Vee weighed on everyone’s minds. But Central had made a choice - it would be worse to go back on it now, not to mention nigh-impossible.

Thus, life continued on as it did, for months, and months, and months…

Then a year had passed.

Then the insurgency grew.

As it had turned out, the snows hadn’t worked on everyone, and the snows hadn't fallen everywhere, either. Some remembered - and some of those who remembered were angry and bitter.

“The Stars for Freedom,” they called themselves. United under the banners of flags forgotten by half the region already due to stray memory-holes and post-soluminary amnesia, Naomi watched as one-by-one, cells of something new grew. "Patriots!" the posters cried. "Terrorists!" the radios squawked. Rust had simply shaken his head at both. He'd seen it all before. What had begun as mere words had turned ugly, guards shot on the Rambeau Line by Maryland. Before long news of the bombing of Avignon Hall had reached her and her comrades, and orders had come from on high: her battalion was chosen specifically to diffuse the growing ‘problem’. To ‘put it down’ should it come to it.

Rust had later taken charge of the programme after a mishap in crowd control, the previous admiral’s blunder costing unnecessary lives. She still remembered her drop-commander’s promotion. Ever the humble man, he’d barely acknowledged it, opting to rather immediately set to work on the near gargantuan task at hand.

He’d been fidgeting with his OAA medal at the time, like he always did whenever he was nervous and needed some frail sense of happiness. It had made her smile at the time. If only she’d known what would happen later.

One by one, they rooted out the cells. Tracked them up and down the coast - midnight riders captured on frozen highways, eradication of newly-made bases in old warships left abandoned on wide beaches, snuffed-out drugways in Tennessee. There'd been a strange kind of thrill to it, really. Now she truly understood the contradictions of war that Rust had told her about, all those months ago - the adrenaline, the equality, the fraternity…

War’s a seductive mistress, Lowflier. A demon and an angel on every man and woman’s shoulders all at once - a drug. Give it a few months, a few times on the active line of duty, and you’ll feel it too. Only takes so long before you’re hooked like the rest of us.

They’d tracked the insurgents all the way to Shelter Island, west of Montauk Point. New York was still under Reconstruction at the time, and repeated separate insurgencies had left the local garrisons there strained. Encrypted signals had been intercepted by codebreakers in Florida. A great gathering was happening there in utmost secrecy, many cells all in one place.

Such a location was by no means an accident. Whatever this was, it was symbolic - in Long Island Sound not far off, one of the last great fights between the old warships and the heroic protectors of old had occurred in the ports there. The end of the era.

The pendulum was about to swing once more.

Rust had spent a long time behind locked doors with his superiors, arguing over something - at the time, Naomi had presumed rations, dates. Came out with a stink-eyed look, a certain sadness beneath that she'd not quite understood back then.

The people above didn’t want to waste the larger battalion on petty thieves like these apparently- so they allowed a small force to be sent in. Just shy a hundred strong, her and her commander included. She later found out that they hadn’t wanted to send any of them in at all - her commander had in fact argued for them to go. Rust had an honour streak a mile wide, and regarding whatever Central wished to do, whatever they ended up actually doing, he’d apparently strongly opposed.

Shelter Island Preserve was a quiet community, an isle waterlocked on all sides by a river. Bare-branched trees covered much of it in a dense grey wood. They'd not arrived under cover of surprise as they'd hoped. People were waiting for them by the shore, people with false eyes and faker smiles. Rust attempted to treat with them, to reason with them, even in spite of all of their games of cat and mouse the past few months. Called out terms, named possible rewards. They were Peacekeepers, after all. It’s what they did.

Usually, it led to peace. Usually.

Old flags burned away. Blue and white are gone, only red remains, the man in the scarlet tophat had said, styled like a spokesman - the old uncle on the posters - red suit and white goatee and all. Peace? Who said anything about ‘peace’? After all, you lot already took that from us. Ripped it from our arms, you did.

Peace is relative. Naomi knows that now. These were a people who were injured very deeply in all the worst possible ways. They were drowning in a confusing world.

Resolution. They didn’t want a pendulum - no, they wanted to skip to an ending, any ending. They didn’t care if they lived or died. They just wanted things to be simple. Cut and dry.

Her fellow troopers in front of her had barely taken five steps down the road to follow the envoy, proud yet wary, when the noise began.

Dust. Smoke. A light snowfall started as the scuffle worsened. Most of it had been a blur at the time - but Naomi remembers the yelling best. The yelling and the noise of gunshot-cracks between cold suburbia. These were not the efficient fighters of Central - these were teenagers, mothers, aging men past their prime, broken veterans. People that would do anything just to hold onto some tiny scrap of what they loved.

Jumping over picket fences, sliding on icy sidewalks. It was a slow advance, every turn checked by hidden guns in the trees, grenades tossed from dark windows. Dirty tactics - but nothing different to what they’d known the Stars to try before. Rust’s eyes were peeled, scanning the trees as they pushed forward to the main town.

There’s more. There has to be more.

They were halfway down into the first neighbourhood when the pipe bombs went off. Then the others surged in. A monster unleashed - a magnificent eagle, thirteen-winged and glorious. Blood on cold driveways. Blood on the snow: a trap.

All bets were off. The real fighting began. Push and pull, right and left. There were people in the trees, on the house roofs. With much arduous sweat, blood, tears, they managed to kill the eagle, but not without cost. They were now split up. What ground that had been gained was now lost. They scattered.

They were almost in the woods when the explosion hit. Rust had pushed her out of the way just in time for something to tear into his side. Debris going everywhere, acrid smoke burning her lungs. Everything was a haze, a snowcloud kicked up shrouding her field of view. Her vision’s blurring. Fighting elsewhere - she’s lost track of her comrades. She fires wildly, covering Rust’s body before anything else can hit it. There’s a stray gunshot - not hers. A scream when she returns the favour. She was a markswoman when she needed to be, after all.

The worst part of it was that for a split second, it felt like she was back home hunting game in the woods. She felt tingly in her bones. She felt… excited.

When the cloud cleared she saw the body of the life she took. The boy had been fifteen years old.

Rust was on the ground, involuntary tearstains running down his soot-covered face. She’d knelt beside him then, her forehead pressed to his. Suddenly, she felt his hand in hers, something thrust into her palm - that tacky, plastic medal, blood smeared all over. He was whispering something in her ear. There was code - a tripkey with a button in his pack. He kept sobbing, saying how he hadn’t wanted to use it, how he’d tried to fight them but they’d forced him to have it anyway. It was hers now. Her burden.

How more than anything else, he was sorry for her. She didn’t know why until after..

He died in her arms, choking on his own blood. Shrapnel had cut deep in his side. No time for a burial - she heard the voices around her, the gunshots through the trees. She had to get out - out and fast.

When she finally radio’d in the signal and activated the key, she’d been alone, hiding in a cellar in some ill-begotten part of the isle. No more tears. Those had long since frozen on her cheeks. She didn’t know where anyone else was. The bloody medal was in her hands.

One day. Twenty-four long, dreary hours. She decided to escape when she heard nothing, only to find a snowstorm had blown in. Naomi was tired, hungry, cold. Everything was a world of blustery white, a brighter kind of dark. Her helmet was cracked. Faint memories were leaking now.

In the distance through the windswept snow, she saw lights on the street. Dark figures - but no fighting. Had her comrades elsewhere won? Scrambling closer, more animal than soldier, she panted doggedly to the street’s edge, peering out over a low hedged fence.

Oh, the things she saw.

Bodies lined up in rows under somebody’s porch. A bloody eagle painted on the wall with their blood. A crumbled pyramid of snow. The Stars were dragging out her dead comrades for some kind of sick show. Cameras rolling, bright crystal lights. Someone or another was giving a speech, with words she couldn’t hear over the wind but knew the gist of anyway. She could see the triumph in the shoulders of the insurgents standing on that porch. Even beyond that - their resignation.

They were putting on an act. They were putting on a bloody presentation. The Stars might die - but the world would never forget this. Central could never forget this. That was all that mattered to them. They’d have their ending, and feel vindicated for it. Hell, they might even be real stars at the end of it all, if their reelstrips got out. Dazzling, glamourous, brave: heroes.

Naomi saw red.

Guess Dad was right. I really am gonna be in Hollywood after all, aren’t I?

Just as she was about to jump the fence and interrupt everything, she heard it and froze: airhorns, distant sirens. Five long beats. Chopper sounds. First they were faint, barely louder than the wind. Then they grew louder, and louder, and louder-

Naomi had never been present for something like this before, but even she knew what it meant -
garrisons in the east spoke well enough of the newfound iron rod of Central. Their greatest secret. Their greatest tool. The reason for everything. The hands - the hands of Hell.

Many names they went by. Dogs of Mars. Vultures of Gahenna's rest. Once called the Beasts of no nation - they were Central's now. Born and bred for all the wars that were and are to come. Selective killers - selective and brutal. She just called them helicopters.

She’d brought it. She hadn’t known when she’d used the key, radio’d in the code. But she’d brought it upon them all. Rust’s cold medal burned in her hands.

There were Devils in the air that day. Red and white houses consumed by fire, smoke and salt stinging everything everywhere and nowhere all at once. Insurgents and tired families alike died in their homes as roofs were ripped off one by one by twisted metal limbs.

The Stars for Freedom had promised their starved and hungry followers salvation, a return to the American Dream. Many people had flocked there out of some stranger kind of belief - denial. The refugees had so much faith when they’d planted those bombs. So much hope.

The monsters were there for what felt like hours. Naomi could barely speak. Rust’s voice whispered in her mind, a torturous memory as she was left panting in the snows.

Can’t save everyone.

It was like a dream. Running. Crinkled eyes. A house collapsing right in front of her, an old man ripped in half by spines innumerable while loved ones screamed. So much death, so much carnage - and she was untouched. A spectator. A fucking spectator. Was it even real?

Best thing we can do is try, right?

She found some of her comrades. Saw them hiding, untouched too. They’d called out to her, but she didn’t hear what they said, just kept walking on listlessly. Stumbling. Sirens continued to blare. Something was ringing in her ears. She saw shadows of dogs well-trained flying through the snowy winds, hanging corpses trailing behind them. No. She’d been wrong, this wasn’t a dream. Too lucid. This is a nightmare.

She found herself in the smoking ruin of some building or another, aimless and alone. She didn’t know how she’d gotten there. Her head was pounding. Screams in the biting wind. Suddenly, she heard someone sobbing - a child bawling too. A mother trying to hide under a part of the house left intact, a swaddled babe in her arms. There was so much fear in their eyes, so much love. Then the Devil came.

Above them, the cloudmists were clearing in a swirling circle, a dark glare descending over everything all at once. Beating air. A spine fell from the sky puncturing the cloud - then two, then three, a wall to their right slumping over and crumbling into the snowbank in a thousand little pieces. Before she knew any better, she’d jumped on top of the woman and child, arms clenched tightly around her, drawing their bodies in close on the mushly ground. The babe was just small enough to fit between them. Their breaths were warm.

To save them from a world that won’t do anything. Rust’s ghost was mocking her now.

She felt the spines veer and spike into the earth around them, their vibrations shaking through her very bones as they ripped away the rest of the building. The sheer presence of the thing’s maw leering down above them that she knew was there but could not turn to see was unbearable, her training be damned. She braced herself for the worst.

One final tear of a wall, then - something touched her back. Not skewered. Not punctured. Touched.

The Devil’s hands were smooth metal covered in something wet - plasma, blood, viscera - snaking carefully around her and the woman, cutting but not without care to avoid true harm. It knew no privacy. The jagged appendages were feeling, searching, roving across her for any kind of weakness to exploit to find its prize.

Naomi prayed, then, for the first time in a long time. End me, Lord, she whispered. The mother was shaking her head beneath her, the child bawling in their arms. Let me die. Let me fucking die. Prove this isn’t just in my head. The Devil was leaning in hard now. She felt something thread back her hair briefly as if a rusted comb before snaking on past.

Take me. Please. Just fucking take me.

Then it found it - that weakness. The woman was just too large.

The shock of a mother’s head being skewered out from under her and ripped from its socket - caving in like a pulpy, bloody grape - was something that Naomi would never forget for all her life thereafter. Something like that - that’s not something that leaves a person. That’s not something that a person is meant to see. Meant to bear.

The initial shock was just enough for the Devil to find other things, too. It didn’t stop. It just kept on stabbing. A living death. Merciless pain. The red glare was unbearable, the icy wind inhospitable. An arm ripped off. Then a leg. Blood like red velvet on the mushy ground.

Never her, though. Never her.

Naomi was thrown back, the babe falling on the snow - not on its head, thank God. It was screaming now, high pitched. So loud, so loud. In the blistering snow, she saw the woman’s body - what mangled pieces were left of it, anyway - levitating from the ground suspended as if being recalled to Heaven.

She was still catching her breath when she saw it turn back to her - its claws in the light, bleeding spines with body parts still hanging loosely half off them. They were heading for something. Something small.

The child.

NO! Naomi jumped. Jumped, reached out, and quickly curled around the chi- the boy. The baby boy, whose name she didn’t even know. All around her she could just hear whirring, that terrible, terrible noise more like the chopping of a kitchen knife than anything mechanical.

They were her enemy, but she couldn’t stand for this. No one was meant to die in this way. No one was supposed to die in this way.

They were fucking human, weren't they?

The child cried and cried and cried the whole time. Naomi couldn’t run. She knew the Devil would come for the boy if she moved, too. Stayed like that for hours upon hours, the dark glare only leaving when she fired her gun off to the right, distracting it from its prize. Or so she had hoped.

The cold silence, only broken by a toddler bawling for his mother, was worse than anything else.

The Locusts left soon after, ghosts in the grey snows. If not for the red streets and the collapsed houses, she’d have thought they’d have never come at all. When Rescue found her at last but a few hours later, she’d been leaning on a tumblestone, gun in her right hand and child in her left, caught in a haze of dazy pain.

To save them from themselves.

Get out of my head, she tried to say, but her lips were too tired to move. Get out of my fucking head, Rust.

Her and some twenty others had survived. That was all that was left from the original hundred. She didn’t know much about the Stars, but she knew the Devils had been thorough. God, they’d been thorough.

This was her fault, really. It was all her fault. She hadn't known what the code would do, why Rust seemed so caught up about it. But, she gave the call. She did this.

They gave her awards for it - the people at Chesepiooc Estuary Command. Visited her in the medbay, thanked her for doing things and going through things no other soldier should have. Told her that what happened at Shelter Island was an error, a mistake, a flaw. That what she saw would never happen again. She’d go back to Dublin a decorated veteran of the stories, with near enough medals and badges and feathers to boot. A hero.

O.A.A. She got that too. She’d lost Rust’s somewhere between the firefights and Central’s dogs. The boy would grow up, at least. He would live - no mother, but she knew the system was better than most. He would live a life of some fulfilment. Better than nothing.

Better than me.

She looked in the mirror the night she got home. Saw herself in her uniform, the bright technicolour medal on her atop all the others. Then she broke down on the bathroom floor. No sound left her lips.

She looked like Rust. She looked like fucking Rust, but instead of feeling happy, of feeling proud when she saw that medal, she just saw a broken, fallow shell of a person. A lizard. A fraud. She deserved none of it. How could she deserve it anyway, if even now all she could hear was whirring? Whirring and a child’s screams?

Right, left. Good, bad. Beginnings, endings. One last shift awaited her. One final swing - a paradigm dance.

She put a gun in her mouth that night. Dared herself to pull the trigger. Would have ended it right then and there, if her fiance hadn’t walked in on her.

She's too much of a coward for even that, in the end.

She threw the medal in the ocean at dawn the next day. The pendulum stopped at last, the voices drowning along with it.

Three numb years followed.


Suvi watches her as she finishes her story. She’s a mess. Naomi’s just staring now in the emptiness.

“How’s that for a story, huh?” she says, salt on her lips and acid in her tongue. “Happy?”

Suvi says nothing for a little while, sitting quietly in the dark.

“You’re not even answering,” she sighs, breaths mangled. “You always have something to say, why don't you bloody say it?

Say what?

A pause. Suvi’s eyes settle on her own. She tries to say something else, but the words never come.

There isn’t anything to say that hasn’t already been said.

“That’s stupid. You never-”

This changes nothing, Naomi. Nothing between us.

A tension she hadn’t known she’s been holding shrinks out of her shoulders. A breathy sigh escapes her lips.

Now, Suvi says, pausing. I need you to pull out one of my eyes.

“What did you just say?”

I need you, to pull out one of my eyes.

“What the Hell-”

Just do it.

“I’m not doing that.”

Fine. I will.

And so it does. A bright light fills the cavern, and a warbled fleshy scream escapes as it yanks one of the four glowing eyes from its sockets. Fluid and plasma flies everywhere, bright and purple and bloody and starlike. The severed eye glows bright and gold now, lighting up the entire place brighter than any fire.

Seeing the creature now, Naomi notices a massive gash down the side of its face where the eye had been pulled. These are those scars, she realises. The ones she’d seen back when they’d first met. The ones on its face.

Do you still have the sword-piece?

The burning ball in her pocket pulses as if to remind her. She draws it out.

“Yes, I-”

Good. Crush this eye, it says, dumping the golden thing into her right hand. It’s surprisingly hard to the touch, though repulsive. Crush it, and coat what you make around the ball’s side.

“But-”

Do it. Do it anyway.

She does as the imp says, and suddenly a great pain flares through her. Suvi’s chanting, chanting in a tongue she doesn’t know - but that’s impossible. The connection should have fixed that, the-

Then it stops.

A sword’s in her hand. A sword, bright and golden and just like Un’h’s.

She stares at Suvi, eyes wide.

“What did you just do?”

The imp only bows its head, a knowing look in its eyes.

What I did? Nay, I’m but a whore.

The thing in her hand is beautiful and light, shimmering every colour all at once. She can almost hear it singing in her mind.

“This- but it- it broke, and-”

She’s stammering so much she has no words more to give.

I have been hiding something, too. I know a way out. I have been afraid, to use it, but now… If you'll carry me, I'll show you. Suvi’s eyes - all three of them now - are wide. Happy?

"I have no reason to trust you," she mutters.

Neither do I. Yet, here we are. A pause. I think it’s time we both stop running, no?

Naomi, still awestruck by the thing in her hands, looks back at her comp- her friend, and slowly starts nodding, voice scratchy from tears. Her mind turns to all the people she's left behind her - Martin. The others in the Tower. The eighty-two faces of her countrymen lying dead on a beach of blood and shit and snow, the Stars for Freedom dead beside them. Garret. Her - her family.

A new mission comes to her now. It's nothing grand or special either, but… maybe, just maybe, it might work. Better than mere survival, anyway.

It takes her a moment to realise she’s been smiling.

“You know what," she says, a faint hope rising in her heart. It's not enough to thaw away her pain, but in time - who knows. Maybe it could.

Maybe.

"I’m inclined to agree.”


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