I set my duffel down in the diner booth. The place is fairly empty, despite lunch time creeping closer. The city has been growing quiet, like we’re all listening for a knock at the door.
Coffee, black. Is all I order. Not really interested in drinking it, just paying for my seat. The steam rises from my cup and there’s rain against the windows. The narrow streets beyond alight with advertisements nobody is around to see, the money spent to flash that neon rendered impotent. Her words left quite the mark in me, deserved as they were. I feel the shape of them, the hole in me, the ache for the lips that spoke them. I shake off the thought. I shouldn’t—can’t—ache for someone I know nothing about. What I want is the sense of safety she provided, but now I suppose that’s in the wind isn’t it. I wonder if this is how it went with Kal’tsit. How did I feel in her arms, or she in mine. When did I burn the bridge between us, and how many matches did it take.
When next the waitress passes by, I amend my original order for something a little stronger. She’s old and tired, and doesn’t give a damn that I’m drinking before noon. To be fair it’s an even game, uppers and downers in a tidy ceramic cup. There was a want in me, for something comforting, and I called it a Caffe Corretto when asked. She offered to pull a shot proper, but I felt compelled to decline that much kindness. My coffee cools as I stir the shots in. The smell is like bitter black liquorice, the taste even worse. It burns all the way down, and leaves a faint sweetness on my tongue.
When did it happen, the first drops of blood to stain me. At what point did I stop being strictly a Doctor. What pushed me to take the first step on to the field of battle. My principles, I wonder? My family? Of course the first things to mind are noble pursuits. I’m not without vanity. How many lives have slipped through my hands on the operating table. How many times have I had those same hands gripped tightly around the throat of another in the name of victory. Do the numbers even out, at all? If I could compile them, count the hours I’ve added and subtracted. Divide by the good deeds and the bad within each of those moments. Is there some answer, is it even an equation? Could I point to it solved and say ‘Look! I’m good! I’m doing good!’ Are these the thoughts a sane woman would have, or is it too late for me. Have I already become what Kal’tsit warned me against. Does it matter?
My tablet buzzes.
From: <<L.G.D. Encrypted Channel>> [8:45AM]
To: Kal’tsit, Amiya, Doctor
Subject: Possible Reunion Asset has been detained. Requesting presence of Rhode Island Representative--
My tablet buzzes again before I can finish reading.
Kal’tsit/Chief of Medicine [8:45AM]: I’m unable to attend at the moment.
Kal’tsit/Chief of Medicine [8:45AM]: If you want to prove to me you’re going to do better this time, you will spare Amiya from attending this.
Kal’tsit/Chief of Medicine [8:45AM]: Further, don’t do anything to jeopardize our contract with Lungmen.
Doctor/radish [8:46AM]: i will be there then
Doctor/radish [8:46AM]: if you could let amiya know she need not worry
Doctor/radish [8:46AM]: i would appreciate it
Kal’tsit/Chief of Medicine [8:46AM]: Okay.
The L.G.D. building exterior is disgustingly grand. If self-congratulation were an architectural style. As soon as I’m through the double doors, I’m recognized and ushered through the bowels of the place. Swiftly digested by bureaucracy. Where was this efficiency when we were first entering Lungmen, I wonder. The journey ends in a small dark room, filled with file cabinets and recording equipment. A one way window set up to view the room parallel. Twice, I’m taken aback. First by the bloody woman on display in the other room, handcuffed to a lone chair. Second, by Wei Yenwu himself welcoming me. He dresses so loudly he’s a sore thumb here, amidst the dreary rank and file.
“Aaaah, the Doctor herself.” He flashes his canines, through his snout it could be a smile or a threat. “Come, take a seat. I happened to hear you’d been through some hardship that might otherwise make standing uncomfortable.” Pipe in hand he gestures to a chair at his side before returning his gaze to the goings on through the glass. I pointedly ignore the offer, stopping a step away, straightening my posture to stand over him.
“Now tell me Doctor, you’ve had far more dealings with Reunion than I.” He nods at the woman on the other side of the glass, “That looks like a member of Reunion, doesn’t it?” Getting a look at her, she looks like any Sarkaz off the street. Nothing remarkable. No weaponry. No uniform. She’s bad off. Black eye, nearly swollen shut. Severe bruising on her arms. Freshly dried blood on her knuckles. Put up a fight and tried to force the cuffs off it seems. Crystals have not yet broken through her skin, but there are telltale signs of infection. A patch of skin on her shoulder undergoing the early stages of necrosis, as the sharp crystals growing beneath slowly dig their way out.
“…No, she does not…” I can’t look at him while I speak, white knuckling my cane instead. I wonder if I have the strength to snap it in half, to ram the splintered wood through his throat. Would that jeopardize our deal with Lungmen, as Kal’tsit put it. “…Release her to Rhodes Island so we can properly treat the symptoms of her oripathy…”
“So you admit she’s infected?” He strokes the fur on his chin, drawing from his pipe. He purposefully shows his hand with that question, but seeing it now does me no good, all his cards have long since been played. He does it just to gloat, to make a point. There’s more than one person set to be interrogated here.
His words mingle with the heady cloud of smoke filtering through his teeth,
“Reunion is made up solely of infected, after all. As an infected, there’s a chance she may know something.” He taps a clawed finger against his earpiece, “See what she knows.” I feel my stomach in freefall, ice running from my heart to my head. I watch as some faceless member of the L.G.D. enters the woman’s holding cell, bringing with him a small box of very specialized tools. My throat goes dry, and I grind my teeth to keep from choking. I take as steady a breath I can and speak,
“…Wei Yenwu, this woman has nothing to do with Reunion, I can assure you of that…” I turn to face him, “…You need not d—” The sound of her frantic begging cuts me short. The first scream follows soon after. Eye wide turning to look, I stand frozen. I feel cast out of time, staring through a mirror. The implements are laid out hammer, knives, needles, pliers neatly alphabetized. I hear myself mumble a plea to stop, riveted. I watch as the guards gloved hand reaches for each item, my body knowing full well the application and placement of each. Every scar of mine a reminder shoulder I ever forget. My leg gives out and I crumple in to the chair. I’m back in that dark place, the chains hold me down. But even worse these blood stained hands of mine are tied, I can do nothing to help her. To help myself. Wei turns to face me, leering at my reaction,
“So it’s true then, you’ve lost your appetite for wet work.” He taps his pipe against the glass, the woman shrieking once more. “If Reunion does indeed plan on turning my city in to the next Chernobog as Kal’tsit insists,” He leans in, blowing smoke, “We’re going to need you to live up to your reputation, don’t you think?” He places in my lap a packet of single use syringes. Each carefully stamped with a sleek little logo that reads, Top Emergency Sanity Potion. Her howling only stops for seconds at a time, hiccups and bargaining between. His clawed grip digs in to my shoulder as he steps past me and to the doorway.
“That reminds me,” He pauses mid exit, “Isn’t your daughter an infected?”
They don’t let me treat her, despite my begging. She’s ushered away far beyond my reach, and I have to live with myself. Sitting in that room for who knows how long. I barely remember how to move, these fingers and toes of mine feeling so far away. I’m reminded I never survived that place which smelled of blood and bile. What was carried through the doorway was a puppet in the shape of me. Something ugly and unforgivable, eager to end the lives of others at the slightest wave of a hand. A tool no different than a needle to be driven deep into a finger, a pair of pliers to pull out nails. When I finally shuffle back outside, the sun is crushing, the rain long since dried up. That cold mannered cat is waiting for me, too. Arms crossed, tail swishing impatient. When she notices me, her expression softens, she steps close. Neither of us say a word, but she looks up at me with a concern I couldn’t have expected. She reads me like a book, I can tell. Slowly she reaches out and pulls up my hood.
“Try to keep your hood up when the weather is like this.” I stare down at her, a full head taller. I’ve nothing to say, and even had I words, there’s no will to speak them. She continues, this being the most I’ve heard her speak without provocation.
“You’re on medication that makes you sun-sensitive, and I don’t want your body dealing with a sunburn on top of everything else y—you’re…” Her voice shudders and she cuts herself short. She reaches to my hand atop my cane, but stops, instead grabbing the edge of my coat.
“I’m sorry, Laika.” She stares at her feet when she says it, her hand is shaking. “I heard what happened. I should have expected…”
“…just tell me what to do…” I should cry here, I think. That would be the proper social cue. But I can’t. I can only beg to be made useful. “…please…”
Kal’tsit pulls her hand back, slowly looking up at me. She studies my expression, lips pursed.
“Okay…” She nods, “Okay. We have our first orders from Ch’en” Stepping away, she crosses her arms and closes her eyes for a moment, letting her concern bleed out. “I want you to meet up with Amiya and the Blacksteel Operators on loan. This is to be a learning experience for her. She has full tactical command, but I want you there to guide her.” She looks out over the empty streets, the closed shops. A whisper of a distant rioters roar is carried through the alleys on a crosswind,
“And if the situation on the ground worsens, I want you to take the reins.”
When I see Amiya, I smile. It’s a very conscious decision, unfortunately. I’m not so foolish to think I could hide my troubles from my own daughter, but to smile…It’s the sign you’d rather not talk about what bothers you. A lie that both parties agree to be complicit in for the sake of coexisting. She smiles back.
Our objective takes us to the edges of Lungmen where winding scrap buildings pile up against each other. Exhausted bodies collapsing where they stood. The humidity is unbearable, but I keep my hood up. There’s no sewer here, no official water system. Most of the power grid is blackboxed from telephone poles on the edge of other districts. Any public service available to these people, was not provided by Lungmen. If they’ve received any assistance at all, it’s to keep them breathing just enough to grease the wheels of capital.
We’re on a two pronged manhunt. First a general order to hunt down unregistered infected and alert the L.G.D of their presence. Naturally, we find none. We provide treatment to a number of those in need, but have nothing to report. Amiya’s a sharp kid.
Our other order is to find a ‘person of interest’. Laughably vague, but the L.G.D. isn’t playing nice. So we wander the neighborhoods Lungmen has all but excised from itself. Franka and Liskarm provide ground support, minding alleys, tallying exits, watching rooftops. The vulpo has a tendency to stretch the limits of her position, forcing her partner to chase after her to keep the defensive line cohesive. They work well together. The fox spurs the overly cautious wyvern onward, and the wyvern watches after the reckless fox. I just quietly follow behind Amiya, providing input when asked, helping to correct her course when she errs. It all starts simple enough, more an exercise in maintaining awareness and safety. But with each moment passing the day grows hotter by degrees and the agitation in the streets starts to boil over. With no warning, Ch’en barks a new set of orders at us over comm. Her temper stirring when she’s questioned in the slightest. The person of interest is a girl named Misha, of Ursus descent. Short white hair, about Amiya’s height.
The girl in question is found fleeing rioters bleeding in from another district, a group rallying against the infected. Reunion rears its head not long after and I’m tempted to step in, but my daughter handles the complexity of the battlefield well. Through PRTS, I watch her issue commands that take the lives of other infected. I keep a running tally of mistakes, areas of improvement. Have PRTS note each one as I see it so I can instruct her later on how best to bloody her hands. It all starts to feel like a picture show, my worst nightmare in Technicolour.
Fervent under the banner of a newcomer named Skullshatterer, our movements become ever more pressed by Reunion.
We turn Misha over to the L.G.D. who swiftly lose track of her.
More and more I step in at Amiya’s behest, facing down the brute strength of the masked leader.
Crossbow bolts fly through ramshackle plaster walls.
Simple combustion arts blast apart poorly set concrete foundations.
Heavy rain darkens the sky and threatens to curtain call the day.
Skullshatterer beats a hasty retreat, and Ch’en commands us to give pursuit and retrieve the person of interest.
To my chagrin the picture show pauses for intermission, when I catch sight of Hoshiguma. She carries an enormous shield, its edges honed to blade-point. She rolls her shoulder, behind Ch’en, her shadow. We all stand amidst rubble, an empty lot dented by blades and bolts. Toppled and tilting chain-link fences skirting the bounds of what was our battlefield. Ch’en and Amiya are caught up in organizing the specifics of what will be our pursuit. Penguin Logistics it seems, has earned their paycheck. That tight-lipped wolf and the smiling sankta managed to tail the reunion leader as they left. While waiting I take a seat on a fallen column, careful of its broken re-bar bones. My tired eye drifts shut and I lean on my cane. Exhausted though I am, my thoughts spin the puzzle of protecting my kids. How much blood is on their hands, how long would it take to heal--
My planning is cut short by a familiar voice. I pry open my eye and look up at her. She gestures next to me, “Mind if I sit?” I shrug and she takes the open space, propping her grand shield up against an adjacent column. For a moment, we just bask in the quiet after the combat, listening to all the voices milling about. The previous din of the torrential rain slowing to a patter. She scratches the back of her neck, tilting her head at Amiya
“So that’s your kid, huh.”
I nod, studying Hoshiguma’s face. Despite carrying her weapon, being on this field of battle, she’s as casual as ever.
“She takes her work pretty seriously.” I look her over for injuries, but she doesn’t have even so much as a hair out of place.
“How are you feeling?” She turns to look me over and it should be obvious I feel like shit.
“…a little more honest…” I meet her eyes with my own as I say it.
“Yeah, alright.” She nods, turning away “I feel bad about that one.”
“…I could have phrased myself a bit better as well…” We stew in each other’s not-quite apologies for a moment. “…Once this operation is over I am going to submit your transfer request…”
She doesn’t say anything, keeps her attention fixed on some distant point, but her expression complicates.
“…Wei Yenwu threatened my daughter today…” I turn towards Ch’en, watching her carefully. My mind on the trigger of PRTS should she ever reach for her blade a little too quickly. “…tortured a sarkaz woman right in front of me and all I could do was watch…”
“A while back,” Her steady voice blankets me. “Wei had me lead a raid. Reunion stronghold, he said.” She stares down at her empty hands, “Went in with my best. We bust down the door to the warehouse and it’s just a bunch of infected kids shivering around a fire.” She’s distant now, watching it all slip through her fingers and past her shield. “I radioed back, thought maybe there was a mistake. His orders were clear enough. I’ve wanted out since.”
Neither of us have anything left to say. But her hand trembles ever so softly in mine.
With little time to waste, our convoy speeds across the wasteland beneath Mobile City Lungmen. Amiya and I sit quietly in the back of the rattling transport, Liskarm at the wheel and Franka at her side. Penguin Logistics is holding ground where Misha’s been taken. An abandoned mine not far off Lungmen’s current path. Time through the day has been dragging its feet, only now approaching sunset. Staring at my feet, my vision is unfocused. A far more gentle reminder than my body deserves, from days of exhaustion. I stare at the rust on the truck bed, as I run a hand over my sleeve. Habit finding a vein for me. Idle thoughts ponder how nice it might feel to have the shape and weight of a syringe in my hand, and drift further to the yet opened packets stuffed in my duffel.
“Doctor?” Amiya’s voice catches my attention, “Were you…listening?” I shut my eye, pulling myself together with a shake.
“…I am sorry, Amiya. I was lost in thought…” I lie, and we smile at one another. But I can’t keep up the act,
“…Amiya, how can I make this better…?”
She blinks, caught off guard. I can see her very carefully picking her next words,
“What do you mean by ‘this’?” Her bunny ears pull up to an alert position. I gesture to the air between us.
“…I am worried I have wronged you, wronged Red irrevocably…” I pinch the bridge of my nose, trying to stop the pulse of my headache “…you should not be out here…you should not be as good at this as you are…”
“Red and I…” She looks to the side, closes her eyes. There’s a visible shift in her expression as she stops looking at me as The Doctor, and sees me as Radish, “Sis and I, you don’t have to worry about us like that, um…” She fidgets, clasping her hands together. “I can’t speak for Red, but…In my case, I insisted, you know…”
I study her face, the motion of her ears as they relax. She continues, “Rhodes Island needs people to keep it running, and you and M-…You and Kal’tsit aren’t going to be around forever, so…”
There’s not much else I can do but sit and listen, hope she had a chance to be truly happy before all this. If this is her wish, I suppose I have to respect it. But how autonomous is her decision from the burdens of her parents. She grabs my hand.
“Radish, we’re alright. I feel loved. You and Kal’tsit gave me a wonderful place to call home, all I’m doing is helping to protect it, okay?” She grins, “I’m sure Red would say the same, but maybe, a little less long-winded, hehehe…”
Amiya has such a dopey and un-bothered laugh I can’t help but laugh along with her, and give her hand a squeeze before letting go.
Franka intrudes on the moment, her ears flattening and then flopping upright as she peeks her head through the cab window,
“Here I thought you were like kinda spooky or something, but you’re a real softy when it comes to Ms. Bunny, huh?” Maybe a little rude, but she navigates socialization much the same way she does the field of battle.
“…Yes well we all have our own joie de vouivre, the same as you.” I speak to Franka, but watch Liskarm’s ears go red through the rear view as I finish, “You would do well to be a little more honest about your ow—”
“Je vous en prie, Madame Radigue!” Liskarm cuts me short, a spark hopping between her horns. Franka frowns, pulling her head back through the window and needling her companion for a translation.
Our transport barrels on, a little lighter for all our mirth.
[ARCHIVE FILE 5]
Surveillance Footage of Dr. Radigue’s Office Following her Disappearance
Day 0 [11:00AM]: Operator Closure abruptly enters the room, setting off a handheld party popper. She has in hand a cup of steaming coffee. When there’s no reaction, her confusion is apparent. She checks behind the desk and in the closet, before pulling out her tablet. She leaves the coffee on the desk and exits the room, still staring at her tablet.
Day 0 [10:45pm]: Operator Projekt Red can be seen entering the room through the ductwork on the periphery of the camera. She stalks around the space before laying to rest on a pile of clothing. This is a daily occurrence, recurring at these same hours and will not be noted further unless there is a significant change in behaviour.
Day 7 [2:30PM]: Amiya enters the room carrying a violin case. She retrieves a music stand from behind the desk and begins playing for a period of 20 minutes at which point she seems to have increasing difficulty with the piece she is practicing. She can be seen pushing over the music stand, throwing her instrument to the ground, and storming out. Amiya does not return to the room after this.
Day 9 [10:15AM]: Operator Kal’tsit enters, retrieving some paperwork from a box near the desk. She pauses upon noticing the broken violin and gingerly picks it up. There is no reaction for several moments. She can be seen holding it close, and weeping. She falls to a sitting position, her back sliding against the desk. Kal’tsit remains there for the majority of the day, crying and sleeping in intervals. Eventually Operator Closure can be seen entering the room. She wraps a blanket over Kal’tsit, helping her to her feet and out of the room.
Day 15 [12:23AM]: Operator Projekt Red stumbles through the main door. A black eye and bloody nose is apparent. She is clutching her tail, bleeding patches where she has picked out the fur are visible. She maneuvers through the newly packed boxes in the room, curling up in the Doctors chair. She remains there for the duration of the night.