Hoshiguma ashes the cigarette as she holds it out to me, letting the smoke wisp from her lips.
“…dunno…” I shrug, but still take what’s offered. The way I reflexively grab it between my fingers seems to answer her question well enough. She stands from the concrete parking block we’re sitting on, popping her back a couple times before finishing up the last checks on the rover before we head out. Idly watching her move about, I take a deep drag of that charring smoke. The taste of tar and nicotine mixes with the lingering sensation of the Oni against my tongue. I feel the rush in my head, and shut my eye. Seems I had my vices. I exhale slowly, and focus on the rays of morning light that tangle playfully through the smoke. With the engine running, the fluid levels all set, the cargo secured and accounted for, Hoshiguma steps back over to my perch. I take one last pull from the cigarette and pass it back to her. She holds it between her lips and helps me to my feet, handing me my cane. Before long I’m settled in the cab, staring longingly at the scant few lanes of sunlight cutting through the heavy clouds overhead, as we’re back to trudging across this dead land.
“Makes you miss it, doesn’t it.” Her voice tugs at me in my morning stupor, reminding me of the obligations of existence. I rub some sleep from my eye and turn from the window to look at her, and she continues, “The days when we could still see the stars.” I dredge up what thoughts I can, and certainly, I know I must have seen the stars at some point. I can call to mind the names of constellations, but I can’t put my finger on any specific stargazing memory.
“…I would not know…” I stare at my feet, feeling almost apologetic for my inability to participate in this remembrance.
“That again, huh?” She glances at me, a little curious. “What do you know?” Blunt as ever, but not crass enough to ask what happened to me outright. I give her the answer that first comes to mind.
“…I know I have two daughters…” I turn back to the window and sigh, pressing my forehead against the cold glass to cool my aching skull.
“…I have an ex wife I am apparently not on very good terms with as well…”
Hoshiguma stifles a very earnest laugh,
“What the hell are you doin’ out here with me, then?” I shut my eye and ponder her question for a moment, digging through my migraine,
“…I do not know. Doing what I am told…But being selfish about it…” I jump a little, as I feel a hand on my shoulder. But relax as I remember it’s just us here right now. She gives me a small squeeze, before returning her grip to the wheel.
“You should introduce me to the kids sometime. I used to have some little cousins to spoil, but…”
She never finishes that sentence.
As the day spins on, the clouds overhead begin to dim. The mobile city of Great Lungmen looms on the horizon, twice as bright and louder even than any sun or neon I’ve seen yet. The mere sight of it calls to mind the clutter and crowding of Chernobog. The smoke, the smell of burning skin and fat, tears of anger shouts of--I grind my teeth and think very pointedly about nothing. Hoshiguma is distracted, on the radio with someone from Lungmen coordinating an open space in the Docking Bay, now that we’re in comms range. The tablet in my pocket shakes and buzzes, and I jolt upright, before quickly composing myself and muttering an apology to no one in particular. I swipe it open to a waterfall of messages.
Projekt Red/louproux [10:30PM]: Red appologize sorre
Projekt Red/louproux [10:33PM]: not back qwik
Projekt Red/louproux [10:36PM]: Radish heer first
Projekt Red/louproux [10:36PM]: Red meet help
Projekt Red/louproux [10:37PM]: wait here
Projekt Red/louproux [10:39PM]: red herre
Projekt Red/louproux [10:43PM]: how send pifctur
Projekt Red/louproux [10:43PM]: show
Projekt Red/louproux [10:55PM]: [image attached]
Projekt Red/louproux [10:57PM]: sister Amiya help red
Projekt Red/louproux [10:58PM]: love radish waitign heer
Clicking through, it’s a somewhat out of focus picture of Amiya and Red. There’s an Arrivals Gate Number just overhead both of them. I almost miss it, but just behind Red’s big hood, Amiya has her hand poised giving her bunny ears. The picture warms my heart and helps shield me against all the anxiety of stepping foot in to this mass of concrete and machinery. I save the photo to my tablet, and set it as my background image. Everything after that is a bit of a haze, I still feel like I’ve just woken up. My migraine comes and goes, making my thoughts swim. We’re through the tent cities growing on the periphery of Lungmen, bolstered in size by the recent refugees from Chernobog. Then come the paved streets that climb up in to the guts of the towering city. We emerge on to a flat block with an impassive steel wall stretching to the edges of vision. There’s a tweak in my head, as I feel PRTS come in to range of other Operators on the Rhodes Island Neural Net. Another small comfort. Floodlights blare overhead, painting circles brighter than daylight while leaving the rest to dark. Guardposts looking down at the crowds gathered at each gate. No doubt what would be called the beginning of Lungmen proper. Hoshiguma sighs as it all comes in to sight. She brings the rover to a stop in front of one of the gates, she leaves the engine running and I can clearly see conflict behind her eyes.
“This is your stop.” She tears herself away from the armed guardsmen, and the crowds they herd. “You gonna be alright?” I want to say no, but it seems she needs the reassurance more than me. With a nod, I show her the photo.
“…my kids are waiting for me…” She gently takes the tablet I offer to her, and her features are graced with a sad smile as she looks at one of her own distant memories through the picture. She turns back to me.
“Mind if I put my info in here?” She gestures with the tablet, “I’m gonna be wrapped up unpacking this and wading through clerical shit, but drop me a line if you need anything.”
“Doctor!” Amiya’s voice cuts through the crowd and the chatter. I stop my hobble to turn towards the noise, thankful for a friendly face in this sea of denied needs. Suddenly I’m tackled, and kept steady by a small blur. My heart nearly jumps out my chest.
“Radish.” Red says, her speedily wagging tail adding in the exclamation points to her quiet voice. I give her the best squeeze I can with my left arm,
“…hello sweetheart…thank you for waiting for me…” She gives me an odd toothy smile, and I laugh. Amiya’s jog slows as she approaches, hesitancy holding her in place. She fidgets just out of reach,
“It’s good to see you up and about, Doctor…” I can hear the practiced restraint in her voice.
“…am I the one who told you to call me that…?” She seems confused by my question, but shakes her head.
“…Kal’tsit then, huh…” I tug at my hood, making sure it’s up and secure, “I think it would make me happy to hear you call me Mom…if I still deserve that…”
Amiya’s eyes widen and she pulls in air to speak, but then quickly looks from side to side, as though expecting some kind of reprimand, and deflates in to silence staring at her feet. I feel guilty, ashamed. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. I’ve let her down once already, a guarantee that I’ve let her down who knows how many times before. Her standing here, experience of a battlefield rusting away in her head, is proof I’ve already failed my kids at the most basic of levels. I can feel my thoughts being eaten up by the crowd and bustle around us. The pressing reality of this quarantine zone bearing down, knowing full well which side my family would be buried in. At that moment, Red steps away from me, pulling Amiya closer.
“Radish, Try,” she huffs, dragging Amiya by the hand. “Head, Broke,” She grabs my hand, “Family, Fix. Radish, Love Still,” Her crooked ears tell me it’s a question, and I nod my head, searching for what to say.
“…I can not promise you the person I used to be, but…” I want to turn my gaze to the ground, but I look Amiya in the eyes when I speak. I see too much hope in them, and I see the fear of hoping at all, “…whoever I am now, I want to be here for my daughters.” I give Red a pat “…I…if you still want that…”
Amiya takes a slow shaky breath, searching my gaze. Her small hands are balled in to shaking fists. She bites her lip and buries her face in my chest, quietly sobbing where she can’t be seen. Red squeezes her, fretting away and tugging at Amiya’s ponytail to try and get her attention. I wrangle the little lupo, wrapping up both of them in a hug.
“…I am sorry for…for everythi--” Amiya squeezes me tighter, her shaky voice cutting me off,
“You were gone for so long!” Her angry words are punctuated by little hiccups, ““Kal’tsit held a funeral.”
She looks up at me, nose running and eyes red “She made us go.” I have to take a breath and count to 10. I place a gentle kiss on Amiya’s forehead, and she squeezes me so hard it hurts, before burying her tears again. Eventually she comes to a calm, and her muffled voice reaches my ears,
“If I’m being honest, I don’t really know how to act around you.” She squeezes me and steps back. Red keeps hold of my hand, her tail wagging. Amiya straightens up her appearance, before continuing,
“It might take a bit, but I think you’re right…it might be nice to call you Mom again sometime…” She shuffles her feet a bit as she says it, letting out a little embarrassed laugh.
Passing through every subsequent round of Lungmen’s security proves more and more difficult. Amiya’s openly infected status draws ire at every turn, despite us having been called here by the man who purportedly runs this city. Amiya presents signed forms and badges for the three of us indicating our necessary presence once, twice, ten times over. A guard riding the high of holding a badge nearly gets physical, but Red can be quite intimidating it turns out. My presence gets attention nearly as much as my infected daughter, every other round of checkpoints asking me to undress to prove I’m not concealing originium crystals on my skin. But it never quite goes that far, thankfully. All the while there are people weeping, screaming. People, infected or merely suspected, are rounded up. No triggers are pulled, but this kind of treatment guarantees their death all the same.
All this space spent on quarantine, segregation, security. All the money wasted on the salaried trigger fingers, the gasoline and munitions standing around. The amount of power reserved for the flood lights and automatic doors and drones flying overhead. The cost of having all these walls built, the materials, the hours… I chew my lip, gripping my cane till my knuckles are white, pulling from what I know to run numbers on how many clinics this could have built. How much housing. How much research and care this could have paid for. I breathe out my frustration and continue my march.
As soon as we’re on the other end of the quarantine, Red perks up. She tugs on my sleeve,
“Call Sit, Assign, Mint.” She shows Amiya and I her comm, the bunny repeats her words back to her with a helpful veneer,
“You have an assignment from Kal’tsit? Do you need to go?” Red nods to Amiya, but looks back and forth between us, her lupine traits telling us she’s concerned. Amiya reaches out to pet her head, waiting for a nod from Red before she actually does,
“We’re gonna be okay Red, I promise. We’re through the worst of it.” Amiya gives Red her most convincing smile, but Red narrows her eyes.
“Amiya, safe, Radish,”
“I’ll keep her safe, I promise.” Amiya fixes Red’s drooping hood as she talks, the Lupo’s tail starts wagging at the bunny’s words. She stands around for just a few more pats, before vanishing in to a dark alley.
“…You are a good sister, Amiya…”
The start of our conversation is stamped out by yet another overly authoritative voice in a sea of pigs, barking at us.
“Rhodes Island was scheduled to meet with the L.G.D. 14 minutes ago.” A blue haired woman with a badge on her jacket steps in to our space. She regards us both with a barely contained look of disgust. “You were late 14 minutes; therefore, you’ve wasted 14 minutes of my time.” I’m blindsided. What an introduction. Amiya shoulders through it and begins to talk,
“I’m sorry, Madam Ch’en—” but is quickly cut off,
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. Who is this.” She glares at me. Amiya’s an impressive kid, she doesn’t even miss a beat,
“Dr. Radigue is currently Rhode’s Islands strategic consultant. Dr. Kal’tsit should have already informed you.”
“Hm.” Ch’en doesn’t miss the slight, crossing her arms. I see a rebuttal brewing on the tip of her tongue, but it’s all cut short by a sudden keening. An infected rightly panicking as they’re being shoved in to an unmarked van. Ch’en shoulders past us, taking command of a situation that has no need of people like her. By her word, guns are raised and the infected are rounded up.
“Detain them all.” She says. I bite my tongue. Amiya grabs on to my jacket discreet as she can, and I put an arm around her as once she did for me in Chernobog. I want to say ‘I won’t let them get you’. But it’s not so simple as that, such a selective heroism. She fears for herself, she hurts for everyone being eaten up by the arbitrary rules of a society that should have crystallized and cracked apart with the first catastrophe. So I don’t know what else to do, but to be there for her.
“You two. Come with me.” Ch’en orders, the death sentences she issued barely off her lips.
We end up nearly touching the clouds, pushed in to a gilded penthouse. Brightly polished floors and expensive trim line the walls. Once again all of it purposeless elegance that could buy and sell the troubles of the impoverished. I fear I may choke to death with how often I have to bite my tongue. Within this gaudy room Amiya and I are face to face with Kal’tsit, who’s in a heated debate with Wei Yenwu. A wretch of a man who talks about the lives of Lungmen as mere walking capital. Talks about the regulation and policing of the Infected in no vague terms, making doubly certain present company knows full well we are included with those who are policed. I manage to pick up the gist of this agreement I’ve been called in to fulfill. There’s talk of Lungmen being the next Chernobog. Of Rhodes Island being the only ones capable of preventing that. And of significant compensation. Kal’tsit even demonstrates a depth of sarcasm I hadn’t thought her capable of. Despite there being no room for doubt, both Ch’en and Wei Yenwu insist in each their own way that Rhodes Island is wasting their time. Too expensive. The LGD can handle it. Etc. Of course, neither of them turn us away out right. They just want to haggle down the cost of peace before it can be considered a worthwhile investment. It comes to Wei Yenwu assigning Rhodes Island some asinine task, under the leadership of Ch’en, in the name of proving ourselves. And of course, on our way out, we’re reminded once again that the infected must adhere to a strict set of rules and curfews while in this great city. Or else.
So we do. Kal’tsit has been assigned a room to which the three of us retire upon the felines command. It’s a fairly spartan layout in an industrial sort of building. Two rooms, filled with a variety of equipment both medical and opposite, likely ferried in by Rhodes Island operators. Seems she’s set up one of the rooms as a command center of sorts. Maps and blueprints are spread out, pinned to corkboards. From a glance it seems like she’s been trying to figure out how Reunion might cripple this mobile city. Be it through cutting power to the mobile cities engines, bombing support struts, organizing riots, etc. The other room is sterile to a fault. I try not to look at it too long.
With the door shut behind us, Amiya lets out her frustration at dealing with Wei Yenwu.
“What a horrible man to deal with! He was so methodical when he spoke…” She stamps her foot.
Kal’tsit’s voice maintains that polite distance when she speaks,
“Amiya, you’ll eventually have to learn to deal with people like that on your own.” The way she phrases it is an intentional reminder of her infection limited lifespan.
“But in the end, you did a great job.” She smiles, as though it’s in character for her. She gently fusses with some out of place hairs on Amiya’s head.
“Ehehehe…” Our daughter smiles and laughs, so naturally.
“That said,“ The feline is back to her cold manner of speech all too quickly, “I want you to meet with the Penguin Logistics staff in my place.” Amiya frowns, looking between us.
“You’re going to be mean to Radish when I’m gone, aren’t you.”
Kal’tsit pauses for just a moment longer than she might have otherwise. Perhaps not expecting Amiya to use my nickname.
“I am not.” is all she manages to say.
“Promise?” I can’t help but laugh, watching Amiya push Kal’tsit in to a corner. Kal’tsit sighs,
“I promise. Now hurry, they’ll be expecting you. Red and Scavenger are in the area if you need anything.”
Then, unfortunately, we’re alone. Kal’tsit turns towards me and steps close, I hear her draw breath as she gives me an empty glare, tasting the rank fumes of old cigarettes and oni sweat on my hair.
“You picked up your old habits rather quickly,” She clears her nose of the smell, “Give me your arm.” I wonder why she even bothered asking, when she just takes it anyway, rolling up my sleeve and running a finger over the crook of my elbow. She does the same for my other limb,
“Not all of them, at least.” She steps over to the sink and starts washing her hands, “Go in to the other room and sit in the exam chair.”
“…here I thought you had promised our daughter you would not be mean…” I try and hide my fear of being back under the knife behind something equal parts vitriol and jest. Kal’tsit stops mid scrub, pulling in a very long breath, before silently finishing up. She turns back to me, hands dried and gloved.
“This is me being nice. You’re still a mess from what you went through. Still sick. Go sit in the chair.” She shuts her eyes, and though it’s clearly pained adds “Please.”
I watch her gently slip a needle in to a vein, hooking me up to an IV. She’s robotic in her movements, nearly inhuman. Clear enough she’s done this kind of thing hundreds and hundreds of times, it’s down to a reflex for her. But she still spends the seconds to avoid causing unnecessary pain. I’m the first one to break the silence,
“Yes. You were gone for three years, Laika.” She glances at me over her glasses, her pupils almost bladepoint, before turning back to her work tidying some stitches. “I thought it would help the kids move on.”
“…just the kids…?”
“So did you catch her name before fucking her. Was she nice?” Kal’tsit answers the question by cutting it short, not missing a beat or pausing in her work.
“…She’s very earnest and considerate…” I watch Kal’tsit’s face carefully as I drop the bait “…First one to make me feel safe…” I wait until the feline looks at me before adding, “…since waking up…”
She sets down her tools and leans back, momentarily holding her pince nez bifocals to rub at the bridge of her nose.
“Why are we doing this, Laika.” She crosses her arms and stares.
I shake my head at her, “…Hazard a guess for me…”
The muscles in her jaw clench, and relax,
“Because lying comes all too easily to you. Because even though you’ve been spared the memory of everything we’ve done. I haven’t.” Her eyes narrow, “Because at some point you were a broken shell of a person who barely slept or ate, and sacrificed the blood of others and yours to keep Rhodes Island running.” She shuts her eyes, her metered voice wavering almost imperceptibly. I sit with that, as she goes back to work, the silence of the room drowning out the clink of shuffling metal. Leaning back in the chair, I stare at the overhead light.
“Any pain you would consider out of the ordinary?” She’s taking my pulse, counting seconds on her watch.
“…Persistent Migraine…Trouble sleeping…you still on good with Closure…?”
“Hm. In a way.”
“…she is worried she is part of the reason things soured between us…”
“If anything it only lasted as long as it did because of her. How’s your appetite?”
“…I eat when I am given food…I think she would appreciate hearing that from you…”
“I’ll keep that in mind. You should say hello to Warfarin.”
“…I will keep that in mind…”
Suffocating quiet once again, for who knows what length, as she examines the neural implant in my head. I try to distance my thoughts from my body for the duration of her fiddling around in my skull. On occasion I’m reminded of the tools and prongs probing my eye socket with a jolt or a click too loud to ignore. I feel her stretch some cloth around my head, careful of it’s placement. An eye patch in place of bandages. Eventually she sits back, taking off her glasses and tucking them in to her lab coat.
“Radish.” I sit up and stare at her in shock, mouth half agape. The IV tugs at my arm, reprimanding me for my quick movement. Hearing that name from her makes my heart ache. “Do better this time. Please.”
“…I will. For our kids.”
“I wish I could believe you. Lay back down.” Our back and forth hurts more than the stitches she pulls, or any injection I’m given. It’s not the barbs that hurt, but the rose. She hooks me up to something like a dialysis machine, looking over my chart. She has every right to treat me as she has, and worse, I suppose.
“…what did I call you before…?”
“Ma minette amoure.” She answers easily, as she keys in the necessary information before starting the machine. I start to feel a little light headed, sick to my stomach, as it whirs away. But nothing bad enough to make me sweat. A fine black powder builds up in a glass tube attached to the machine, as my life is run through it.
“…awfully full of myself wasn’t I?”
She laughs, but doesn’t answer, watching the readouts on the machine, her back to me.
“…Je pensais que ce serait différent.” Her ears draw back as I say it, but she doesn’t turn.
“…Ma ciel étoilé, ou...Ma plaisir quotidien...” At first, I’m not sure if she even speaks my native tongue or if she was just echoing back what she’d heard me say long before, but
“Please.” I can see her shoulders tremble “Please stop.” It had far more of an effect than I had wanted. I immediately regret speaking.
“…Kal’tsit, I am sorry…I…” She shakes her head, and from behind I see her wipe at her eyes, steady her breath as quietly as she can. She straights her labcoat, stepping over and unhooking me from the machine. Kal’tsit doesn’t look me in the eyes.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” Her question doubles as a statement. I can’t stay here.
“…I will figure something out…”
[ARCHIVE FILE 3]
An Excerpt From a Burned Report
So I ignored her advice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission, or whatever…But I was right. The originium crystals growing in my body are somehow inert. Incapable of transmitting the infection anymore. They still act as arts amplifiers even. The only downside is that without frequent medical intervention, they will end up cutting through my internal organs. But that’s fine, I’m no stranger to having my guts on the operating table. Of course there’s also the necessary change in diet, as the crystals parasitize what nourishment I get in order to grow. Warfarin will have a field day when I tell her.
The stone coffin really could be the missing link in all this. I have to get Ursus to agree to my request to study it further. Either that or steal it. They’re using it to power their fucking city of course. Hellagur has his clinic in Chernobog, and owes me one. That would be a good pretense for a visit, considering the eyes on me. I can’t sit on this when time is so short. Amiya’s condition isn’t getting any better, and Kal’tsit still blames herself for infecting both of us. In her case, I doubt the infection is going to be what kills her……