In spite of Yannis implied threats to the contrary, threats that he’d be abandoned down here (wherever ‘here’ actually was) for months until he broke… Sei had to quietly endure only just over one day of humiliation before the vindictive eumin finally decided to go and revisit him. Although he couldn’t help feeling concerned about why, it was still a relief, in a way – the joints in his legs were going to need a fair bit of maintenance from his self-repair, and his arms had grown stiff, the connectors pulled tight and stretched after such a protracted period enduring tension across them.
Listening to his captor’s footsteps approaching down the chilly corridor, the pinioned cob noticed the man had an unexpected stiffness to his manner – one that he had to put down to frustration, if the video feeds he’d been subjected to were anything to go by. Sei couldn’t help wondering if the man would have abandoned him for longer if Mirii had behaved the way he’d wanted, bowing to his advances and spreading her legs on command? Thankfully, Mirii had proved herself to be far more than the slow-witted gold-skinned whore Yannis had tried to imply she was, politely refusing his advances and nudging his wandering hands away when they skated just that little bit closer than politeness allowed.
Thank you, dear. Sei sent silent thanks in her direction, watching her sit on her knees on the carpet and gaze out of the vast bedroom windows, down over the garden and towards the city stirring in the early morning sunshine below, still dressed only in a fine silken nightgown. I promise, I will get you out of this mess, intact.
The footsteps in the corridor grew closer. He hastily resumed shamming unconsciousness – thankfully, not difficult – allowing his eyes to roll back in their sockets until all that was visible was a subtle rind of blue iris.
The footsteps stopped in the doorway, and for several moments, there was silence. Sei just… listened, and waited, wary. What new devilry was the man playing, he wondered, staying as still as he could.
At last, Yannis gave a dismissive snort, and muttered something unpleasant under his breath. “So, my dear doctor.” He elevated his voice until the volume was almost theatrical, striding into the room. “How are you, this fine morning?” he cooed, right into one stiff black ear. “Sleep well, I hope? I trust our accommodation was up to your exacting standards.”
Sei twitched and allowed himself to come round. “I have… ‘slept’… in better…” he said, softly. “I hope you do not treat all your guests like this. The comfort level leaves something to be desired.”
“Pssh! What does a computer need with comfort?” Yannis scoffed, waving a dismissive hand. “But, that was not what I came down here for. I have decided, you have lazed about down here quite long enough. You need to be made useful!”
Sei couldn’t help arching an eyebrow – lazed about?! – but otherwise remained silent.
Yannis circled to stand in front of him, what looked like an electronic key in one hand. “I am going to release you in a moment,” he said, quietly, gesturing with the device and confirming Sei’s suspicions. “I hope even you will not be so stupid as to try and escape. You know I will punish you if you do, and you know how terribly distraught I will be if I have to, ah, damage you. Prematurely.”
Sei watched him for several moments, as though gauging his resolve, but finally twitched his restrained head, managing a tiny nod. He knew Yannis would take obscene pleasure in teaching him a lesson in not running – or rather, would take his pleasure in tormenting Mirii, and making Sei watch.
Yannis’ lip twitched up a little in a one-sided smile. “I have your solemn word that you will be a good little machine and do as you have been told?”
“You have my word,” Sei agreed, stiffly. “I will not attempt to escape. Yet.”
Yannis snorted. “You say that as though you be given a further opportunity,” he scoffed. “You will be going straight from here to my laboratory.” He wagged a scolding finger – naughty naughty. “Do not think you can pretend you are somehow smarter than me. Your ability to regurgitate facts will not help you serve me.”
He squeezed the device in his hand, and the locks all disengaged simultaneously; his support suddenly absent, even Sei’s lightning reaction time wasn’t quite enough to save him from landing unceremoniously on his rump. He somehow managed to suppress a grimace as he crushed his short tail underneath himself. “Thank you,” he murmured, just loudly enough to be heard, knowing his failure to display any overt signs of discomfort would annoy the eumin.
Predictably, Yannis curled his lip and muttered his annoyance. “Iios?” He elevated his voice. “Would you come in here? I need your assistance.”
A familiar voice answered it. “Of course. I will be with you shortly.”
Sei had to restrain the relief that wanted to leap up within him, at the knowledge that his brother was still alive – after all, he might still be alive, but in what condition, if he was being allowed free rein of the place? He watched the doorway, uneasily.
Iios’ soft footsteps approached, and finally a ghostly spectre in work overalls slipped through the doorway. “How may I be of service?” Pale gold eyes stared out over Sei’s head as if gazing out to the middle distance, and a sweet, non-comprehending half-smile curved the thin lips in an expression so bland, it could have belonged on anyone else’s face.
Sei actually physically recoiled in horror, bumping into the post against which he had until a few moments ago been pinned. The jade ghoul barely resembled the troublemaking sibling he remembered, and if not for the fact that every other parameter was spot on, he’d have believed this to be another crude trick to squash his spirit. “Oh my goodness-… how did- what did you-…?!” A whole dictionary at my disposal and I can not find the words to adequately express my feelings! “What have you done to him?!”
Yannis circled, rather like a predator tasting blood in the water. “A little… selective reprogramming.” A smirk creased his features. “He’s so much more likable when he’s not being a puffed up, boastful idiot, don’t you think? When he’s not preening and posturing, showing off and trying to be witty.”
“But you-… you can’t do that!” So much for not betraying your feelings to the monster, Sei. “You can’t just-… You’ve broken him-!”
“No, dear doctor. Fixed.” Yannis rolled a shoulder in a casual shrug. “What is the point to a machine designed to serve, if it refuses to fulfil its primary function?”
“How dare you act like you know anything about our ‘primary function’-!”
Yannis’ smirk broadened into a delighted grin at successfully needling a response from his captive. “Now I would love to chat with you all day, but alas, I have my little songbird to tend to. And you, sir, are far too free-willed, right now, I can’t have a liability like you running around, sabotaging my plans. Iios?”
Iios stepped forwards, gracefully. “Yes sir?”
“Take him down to the lab. Kolek has been briefed with what he needs to do. If this one attempts to escape? You are authorised to do whatever you need to stop him,” Yannis instructed, coolly.
“Of course sir. I understand.” Iios turned to look at Sei, and the blank golden stare seemed to gaze straight through him to the far wall. “Would you come with me, sir, please?”
…Run, said a tiny voice in the back of Sei’s mind.
He didn’t stop to think about where it had come from – he simply obeyed it. Lunging at his brother, he rammed him solidly with his shoulder and overbalanced him into Yannis, who spluttered and squawked expletives at the painful impact. Before either had gathered their wits enough to stop him, Sei had bolted out into the corridor, running blindly down it as though his life and sanity depended on it. (Which, to be fair, having seen Iios? It probably did.)
The instant he’d regained his feet, Iios was after him, abandoning Yannis on the floor. The familial epithet they used for each other – “twin brothers” – wasn’t just for sentiment. They were identical, in all ways that counted right now, and Sei’s weakened limbs gave Iios just that tiniest edge over him.
While Sei struggled blindly to work out where he should go? Where was the way out? All unfamiliar corridors and doorways that wouldn’t open! Iios cut into his lead.
I’m not going to escape, this time, Sei realised, unhappily, staggering blindly. I think I may be about to die. No sooner had the thought finished processing than a weight collided solidly with the small of his back, and bore him roughly to the floor in an untidy sprawl of limbs. “Ah-!”
“Please do not be fearful,” the object said, firmly, keeping one foot – and most of its weight – at the nape of Sei’s neck, the other knee resting on his shoulder. “Our master has only your best interests in mind.”
“Our master?!” Sei echoed, thrashing in his twin’s unyielding grip. “Yours, maybe, but never mine-!”
“Please, cease your struggling. I would not like for you to be injured.” After a second or two of unsuccessful grabbing for the flailing limb, Iios managed to secure one wrist into a flexible binder, trapping the arm at the small of Sei’s back,
Just do exactly as I tell you, a familiar-unfamiliar voice said, softly, one that… somehow it seemed to bypass his ears altogether, just dumped itself squarely into his auditory processor. I’ll explain everything once we’re in private.
Surprise left Sei just uncoordinated enough for Iios to successfully get the second arm into the binder. The addition of a slim collar at the end of a short length of carbon-fibre cloth pulled his wrists upwards, towards his neck, contorting his shoulders back into an awkward, uncomfortable angle. The restraint had either been designed for a much smaller individual, or the forced contortionism was intentional, to prevent Sei getting enough of his incredible strength to bear on any one part to break it.
Iios carefully gathered him up off the floor, assisting him back to his feet. “Please forgive my rough handling of you, but you were instructed not to run.” Was that a very, very subtle grin on the long snout?
Sei groaned softly to himself, recovering his awkward balance. He might have stood a chance at escaping, if it had been only Yannis to contend with. “What has happened to you?” he sighed, feebly, allowing himself at last to be led; Iios’ hand was like a gentle manacle on his upper arm.
“Master Yannis has reprogrammed my cortex, excising those portions of code that allowed me the simulation of free will. I am no longer autonomous; I exist now to take instructions, and to serve.”
At least, he thinks he has, that mysterious nonvoice said. Iios’ face never even so much as flickered away from that docile, amenable smile, but Sei was confident he was the origin of the voice. Playing along with it seemed safest, for now – at least until I’ve worked out what he’s up to.
Sei managed to keep his surprise well hidden. “How did-”
“All will be explained shortly. Please, do not be fearful. Our master wishes only to help you achieve your full potential.” I’ll brief you on the way, because this is where it’s going to get difficult. After this, we have to behave the same, talk the same, react the same, or he’s going to suspect something. Understand?
Shaken but still just about in command of his wits, Sei offered the tiniest nod of confirmation. It would seem Iios was not quite so docile and biddable as he first appeared – although it was hardly a surprise to find him playing a highly dangerous game. The dark cob fell into step with his blank-faced twin, allowing himself to be led. “What about my poor Mirii?” He didn’t really want to know what Yannis had been up to, but had to ask, before he put his foot in it and blew the carefully choreographed game wide open. “Has he… has he reprogrammed her, too?”
“That is information to which I have not been given access, however my interactions with her suggest she is unchanged.” He’s not really allowed us much contact. I don’t think he’s tried anything with her – looks like he’s having too much fun manipulating her. No offence, brother, but she doesn’t strike me as the sort that would be able to maintain this sort of charade for very long.
“Oh, Mirii.” Sei closed his eyes, head hanging, wearily. “What have I got us into this time.”
“You should not be fearful. She is in a good environment. Master Yannis will ensure she is treated with utmost love and respect. You should be happy for her.” Look, we need to use silent transmitters to talk. One of these one sided conversations is going to get his attention eventually, and you won’t be able to talk at all when he’s ‘reprogrammed’ you.
“I am not sure I can.” Sei had to hope Iios would recognise which question he was responding to, and added, for the benefit of other ears that may have been listening; “not when it is by the last person in the entire universe that I would want to do so.”
No? Great. Fan-TAS-tic. It was impossible not to imagine Iios huffing melodramatically under the cool façade. We’ll have to think of something else. For now, just keep quiet, and play along. And stop asking difficult questions! If you manage to blow the cover I’ve worked so hard on, by blurting out something stupid, I’m going to freaking… disown you, or something.
The room Iios led Sei to was “laboratory” in name only; poorly lit and filthy, surrounded by echoing factory walkways and empty machine emplacements, with layers of old soot caking the walls, apparently untouched since the original owners had abandoned the place. The nyen clanking around with a pile of cans on a makeshift trestle table didn’t appear to appreciate the dirt, either, his long tail curled up off the dirt and twitching, irritated. Yannis’ equipment had been crudely installed in the corner furthest from the doorway, a series of clumsily placed halogen lamps seeming to make it look even more hastily thrown together.
“What in the name of-… That is your master plan? I am not going near that-… that instrument of torture!” Sei exclaimed, backing straight into Iios.
Iios caught his upper arms, one hand on each, ostensibly to keep him from running. Steady. It’s just wires and blinking lights. Uncomfortable, but harmless.
“I think you’ll find your options sorely limited, doctor,” Yannis corrected, from his perch on the casing of a portable supercomputer just inside the door, in the cleanest bit of floorspace he’d been able to find. “But please, by all means, continue to fight. I’m enjoying watching you flailing helplessly.”
Whether Yannis actually meant it, or just said it to get him to stop fighting, Sei couldn’t work out, but he figured either option was going to amuse the eumin, and he ought to try and take the marginally more dignified route. He reluctantly allowed Iios to steer him over to the machine, flattening his feet against the floor to provide just that little bit of resistance. “My friends will never allow your behaviour to stand.”
Yannis offered a casual shrug of one shoulder. “Assuming, of course, that your friends ever find you. Or bother looking, for that matter.”
Kolek wrinkled his nose, dismissively, wielding his screwdriver to open the last can of vile green conducting gel. “I really don’t see why we gotta go to all this effort, boss. Big old computer to help out li’l brockie in the lab would be cheaper, an’ less of a liability. Could just sling this one into the sea with some nice concrete boots on. Definitely won’t find ‘im then.”
“What have I told you about thinking?” Yannis scolded. “Help get him into the machine, and let’s get this… farce over and done with, as quickly and smoothly as possible. The fewer chances our good doctor gets to throw sand on the flames, the better.”
“You could kill him. Then he’d have no chance to muck around with your plans.” The hart wiped his hands and stomped over to Iios, hoofbeats echoing and amplified through the empty factory’s endless galleries. “Face it, that wee computer you’re sat on is prolly good enough for what your science guy needs.”
“Yeah yeah. Stop thinking, get on, whatever.” Kolek grabbed for a leg, made half invisible by the gloom, and managed to keep his grip on the thrashing ankle long enough to get a manacle closed around it. “This is gonna come back and bite us in a hundred ways, an’ I really don’t wanna be hanging around when it does.”
As soon as the doctor had (grudgingly) signed her off as fit to do her duties again, Hauura headed up to the bridge, where she got herself installed in the captain’s chair, and refused to budge from it until they arrived at Hah’zeept. She sat there even now, brooding silently, chin propped on her folded knuckles, looking like her head was still too heavy for her to hold up unaided as she watched the big gold sphere rotating slowly on the main viewer.
The waiting was the worst. Xniki were usually patient creatures, but Hauura had always been prickly, and tended to overthink if she was kept waiting, descending into an irascible, brooding doze. Her features had compressed into something halfway between a concerned pout and a nose-wrinkling snarl, and most crewmen were happy to give her the wide berth she wanted.
After a very long time spent watching the globe below, she wearily lifted her heavy head from her hand, and gave Pau a stare. “Anything from the police, yet?”
“Nothing solid yet, ma’am. They’re still looking for the doctor’s ship.” The vul just managed to swallow the urge to add just like the last time you asked, half an hour ago. “I’ll inform you the instant they start talking to us.” He pecked his fingers at the controls. “We’re still waiting on them to authorise our access permit, as well.”
The big raun rumbled something incomprehensible and drummed her long fingers against the chair, slouching over in the opposite direction and propping her head on her other hand. Hah’zeept wasn’t a coalition world, so Ardea’s crew didn’t automatically have landing rights; they had to sit in holding orbit and wait to be granted permission. More waiting.
“Why always the dry, dusty, hot little worlds you lead us to?” she cursed her absent captain. “And always they have to be so damn bureaucratic.”
“It could have been worse,” Velia pointed out. “At least this world is still mostly desert – population’s low, there’s not that many cities, narrows it down a little for us already. They could have led us to a heavily populated central planet – we’d have stood no chance of finding them, there.”
“You do not help my mood,” Hauura griped, sourly. “I see no ‘up’ side to any of this, yet.”
“Cheer up, ma’am. Right now it’s hard to tell if you’re more annoyed that we haven’t found him yet, or the fact it’s too dry for you to personally go down there and drag him out by his eartips,” Velia observed, cheekily.
Hauura directed a glare at her, fins flaring. “Captain may appreciate your cheek, but I do not. Keep your wit turned inwards!”
“Never let it be said that you are any easier to get on with when you’re sick.” Velia put up her hands in defeat, and headed off up around the bridge, towards one of the rear communications terminals. “I’ll go give the planetside police a bit of grief, see if they can’t hurry our access permit along a little.”
“How are you feeling?” Eri leaned a little closer, so she could speak more quietly. It was fairly evident in the brusquer-than-normal manner that the xniki still wasn’t fully recovered.
“Well enough to work.” Hauura shot her a glare and waggled a semi-threatening finger. “You and Hop Along poke those long snouts into others business too much. My sickness does not concern you.”
Eri managed to swallow her offence at being scolded, reasoning that she’d probably be in a bad mood if she was getting over an illness, as well. “…is there anything I can get for you, so you feel less wiped out?”
Hauura grunted to herself in xanu, and allowed herself to slump back into the chair at last, rubbing her long hand down over her face. “Quiet and sleep is all I need right now.”
“I’m sure Iios wouldn’t mind you using his office to rest. You’ll be closer to the action if Pau has anything to report.”
“I have my own cabin. It has all the communications I require.”
“True, but you’re easier to keep an eye on up here.”
Hauura rumbled something very deep under her breath, and at last Eri realised the big raun was actually laughing. “All right, Speckled Hands. You win this round. I will go and rest.” She levered her bulk out of the chair, and stood swaying ponderously for a second before turning to Pau. “You call me the instant anything happens?”
He bared his teeth in an anxious grin. “Of course. Wouldn’t dare do anything else!”
In the grimy depths of the abandoned factory, Yannis watched with a grim satisfaction as his prisoner’s dark face relaxed, the lines of tension smoothed out, and the frown softened into a bland, patient smile.
Kolek flicked a switch and disconnected the power supply, and the long probing tendrils all relaxed away, unplugging the soft connections they’d (supposedly) made with Sei’s cortical relays. “A’right, machine. I’m gonna let you out now. You gonna behave yourself?”
Sei lowered his head, allowing the nyen to reach up and remove the device that had fitted over his head. “Certainly. I will behave in whatever manner is expected of me,” he agreed.
“Yeah, well, you better.” Kolek unlocked the first of the wrist restraints, but couldn’t help subtly cringing away from an imagined blow.
Yannis caught the flinch, and laughed unkindly. “Whatever is the matter? Do you not trust your own equipment?”
“Just a little nervy, boss.” Kolek glared back up at him, crouching to unlock the cuffs at Sei’s ankles. “An’ with good reason, I figure. You really sure you wanna give the guy free rein of the place?”
“Of course.” Yannis snorted his contempt. “You seem to be sorely lacking in spine lately, Kolek. We have them perfectly under our control. Allow me to demonstrate. Sei?” He waited to ensure he had Sei’s full attention before speaking. “Come here.”
“At once, sir.” Sei at last emerged from the machine, delicately stepping away from the cuffs and the puddles of green conducting slime. He stopped a pace or two away from Yannis.
The eumin picked up a piece of old detritus from the floor, measured its weight in his hands, then took a swing at Sei’s underclothed chest. The length of metal made a hollow thok as it impacted, and the force of the blow made the tall siinu sway, but he neither flinched, nor made any sounds of complaint. The bland smile never flickered off the long face.
“You see? At last, the good doctor is domesticated and useful.” Yannis hefted his stick, and gave him another blow for emphasis. “I could happily spend all day doing this. And you, doctor, you would happily let me, wouldn’t you?”
Kolek folded his arms. “Boss.” The irascible words emerged as clipped little bites of sound. “I didn’t pay upkeep on this machine so you can reprogram the guy then smash him to bits. You go break him, I sure as sweetness can’t fix him.”
Yannis turned to Iios, and pointed at him. “You could though, could you not?”
Iios inclined his head. “With the right supplies, I anticipate that I could execute the necessary repairs.” Although I hope I will not have to. He could very nearly hear the same thoughts going through his twin’s mind.
Yannis chuckled and gave Sei one last swat for good measure before tossing the stick to the ground. “This is all so much better,” he crooned, appreciatively. “At last, you can actually be a productive member of my little society. Can you imagine how much better things would have been, if I had been in possession of this machine in the Bubble City?”
I think you would have been sorely disappointed, Sei allowed himself to think, but just smiled blandly down on the vindictive little man. “I am sorry, sir. I lack a frame of reference to enable me to answer.”
“All right, playtime is over.” Yannis flipped a hand towards the doorway in a shooing motion. “Go get him cleaned up, and some fresh clothing. One thing I do not need is half-naked machines strutting around the place, however useful they might be being.”
Iios inclined his head, and his earrings chimed very softly. “After that, sir, would you like me to return to my chores? Mistress Asenka has provided me with the list for the day.”
Yannis pursed his lips. “You might as well; just ensure you bring him-“ he stabbed a finger in an aggressive point at Sei, “-to the command centre first. I need to give him his first instructions.”
Obediently, Iios led Sei away through the maze of old factory corridors, leaving a trail of green lumps of gelatine in their wake, until they reached the cleaner refurbished areas and the ‘staff bathroom’.
“We can talk safely in here,” Iios said, as quietly as he possibly could, the instant the door had closed; his face remained absolutely still, his words issuing from the almost imperceptible space between his lips. “At least for now. Yannis has a camera here, but no microphones as yet.”
“A camera in the bathroom?” Sei peeled himself out of his ruined clothes, and stepped gracefully into the shower, to rinse off the foul clots of green gel. “Why in creation would he have a camera in here?”
“Hm. A good point.” Iios chuckled at a private joke. “Maybe Asekna elected to have it installed. Strikes me as the sort of thing she’d do.”
“Asenka… The nyen female, correct?” Sei had to resist the urge to turn his snout up into the warm water and enjoy the feel of it washing over him. At least the jelly rinsed easily from his skin and hair, big lumps of it disappearing like fat green slugs down the plughole. “I have, ah… ‘spoken to’ her on occasion. I can imagine why she may like a camera in here.”
“She’s probably getting an eyeful even now,” Iios agreed, dryly. “I doubt she’d have needed much coaxing to come down and help out, either.” He tidied the filthy clothes into a laundry bin inside the doorway. “Asenka likes to think of herself as highly intelligent, and enjoys trying to prove it. Unfortunately, this makes her quite naïve. A little innocent questioning while at her most vulnerable…”
Sei groaned, quietly, soaping the goo away from his hair. “Please tell me you did not have sex with her just so you could question her when her guard was down.”
“In the event that I were to confirm your suspicions… why should I not? It provided invaluable information.”
“You are about to get married, Iios. Did you not promise Eri that you would stop ‘fooling around’ with other women?”
Iios gave a dismissive little sniff and went to fetch clothing from the tall cupboard next to the sink. “I’m meant to be obedient to a fault, too, right now. She was the one to approach me, they’d have suspected something if I’d refused her wishes.”
“You could have pretended that you were non-functional.”
Annoyed, Iios changed the subject. “Speaking of function, how are you holding up? I wasn’t expecting him to start dealing out the violence just yet.”
“A little surface damage, but nothing my self-repair cannot deal with.” Sei tilted his head to one side and allowed the water to rinse the murk out of his ears. “I must confess, I was expecting his sadism to come sooner, because I know he was looking forwards to it.”
“I expect he wanted to wait until he could be guaranteed you would not be in a position to fight back.” Iios piled the little selection of clothing onto a convenient table.
“So what do we do now. Wait until he lowers his guard, then rescue Mirii and make our escape?”
“If it were that simple, I would have done so days ago. Yannis is working on something quite big, but I’m not sure what it is, just yet,” Iios confessed, holding out the towel. “And I think you might actually have been a secondary target.”
“All the effort and personal risk he has gone to in capturing me, and I am not even what he really wants?” Sei had to work on not letting his expression mirror the audible insult rolling off him. “What could have possibly annoyed him as much as me?”
Iios managed to offer a vague smile, while his back was to the camera. “It’s something to do with the eumin council, I think. After they banished him. They kicked him out of society, forbade him from ever going back. He lost everything, Sei. I think he wants to return the favour.”
“By which, you mean he wants to destroy them? How?”
“I don’t know. He’s mostly had me doing menial chores around the command centre and on his ship, but usually only when no-one else is around, so I only get to hear tiny bits of their conversations. Last I heard, he’s got someone on staff here – although I’m not totally sure if they’re actually staff, or just another hostage – to design a weapon of some sort. I think he wants you to help out, somehow.”
“Help, or quietly sabotage, I wonder.” Sei was quiet for several long seconds, buttoning up his shirt. “…do you think he would allow me to visit Mirii?”
“…do you think that is wise, brother?” Iios carefully neglected to mention his suspicion that Yannis himself would probably organise contact between them – probably to finally convince the poor pen that she was truly alone, and he was the only one that would ever be able to ‘understand and protect her’. (Or rather, mould that gullible little mind into what he wanted; to brutalise the woman and turn her into a oversexed caricature with such bloated anatomy, she would make even Asenka turn away in shame. All the more important they got to the bottom of this, and got their family away and safe.) “Will you be able to keep your ‘public face’ on if he makes her cry?”
Sei’s calm features tightened, ever so slightly. “You are right,” he agreed at last. “Of course. Keep the secret at all cost, correct?”
It felt almost like flying, Mirii thought, leaning into the rail around the garden and gazing out into the valley. The front corner bore a subtle resemblance to the prow of a ship, thrust proudly out into the thermal that rose from the scalding ground below.
Mirii turned her face up to the strengthening sun, and sighed softly, hair ruffled by the hot breeze already rising from the rocky ground hundreds of metres below. The garden was beautiful, but she found herself unable to really enjoy it, any more. It reminded her a little of her rooftop terrace at home, where she and Sei used to stand together, to listened as their neighbours greeted the breaking dawn and to sing their own thanks to the spirits that kept them safe.
Or so she’d thought. Well trained. Behaving properly. All still going to plan. She struggled to brush the thoughts away. Dwelling on the tricks and cruelty of her old life would not help her relax into her new one. It was just-… why was it so hard to understand how such incredible kindness could have hidden such unkind intentions?
And then of course there was still that little voice, deep inside her, that still said I love you, Sei. Please come and rescue me.
No. Not Sei, she corrected herself. I am already rescued. That needy, whiny little voice needs to go far away, to allow me to finally become me.
Would Yannis have come, if she’d invited him, she wondered? Not to give salutation, maybe, he would never have been able to reproduce her polytonal vocalisations anyway, but just to be with her? He is always so busy. It seems almost that he does not desire to be with me?
No, he is giving you space, she corrected herself. Space to recover and decide what you want – what YOU want – from life, without interfering in your decision.
Today like always, she’d risen early, slipping carefully free of the arms that wrapped around her, to head out onto the terrace to watch dawn break on the horizon, but it had felt odd, standing alone to greet the morning. So empty, and quiet. When she spoke her morning greeting to the rising sun, the only thing that answered was her own voice, echoing off the rocks.
When she’d returned indoors, Yannis had already vanished, leaving just a brief note to explain he’d gone down to the factory. Sei wouldn’t have just abandoned her like that, he’d have checked in and said goodbye first.
Because Sei would have needed to check you were functioning normally before returning to report in with his superiors, she reminded herself, firmly. The self-doubt was probably the worst part of this whole mess. Before, she’d been so happy, so content. Now? She didn’t know where she stood.
She ran her hands along the corroded white rail that wrapped the rooftop garden. This comfortable little rooftop apartment had once again begun feeling like a pretty jail cell – or a birdcage. Would he ever let her out, to explore, to make her own way? If she said she wanted to leave, would he let her?
The city below lay half hidden beneath the morning haze, still wallowing in the drowsy mist that had rolled in off the ocean. Skeins of smoke threaded up from a few chimneys dotted about, hear and there, colouring the mist with patches of white and grey. She increased her auditory sensitivity, wondering if she’d be able to hear anything; she imagined the same sort of hubbub as she’d experienced on Waystation Six, but heard nothing. It was evidently just that little bit too far away, like so much else in her life.
“Ah! There you are.”
Mirii turned her head at the call, and watched as Yannis approached. “Hello, Yannis. Forgive me, were you trying for long to get my attention?”
“No, no. I just noticed you were not in the house, and could not see you from my vantage point.” He smiled and covered the hand on the railing with one of his. “I wondered if you would like to visit the market with me today?”
She couldn’t help the smile – please, let me out of my cage for a little while! – but still… hesitated, for several seconds, and when she spoke up again, her voice was soft. “I do not have any way to access my money. My belongings were all aboard the yacht, back at Tas-umskel.”
“Darling, please do not worry yourself over about things like that. Even if you had access to your money, it would not be safe for you to use it, yet. They want to know where you are, they will be monitoring every account you have – you may as well fire a flashbulb over your head and shout here I am, come and get me!” He closed her hand in both of his, and squeezed, gently, then smiled. “Besides. We do not have to spend anything more than a little quality time together. If you would like.”
“I think I would like that.” Mirii smiled, and nodded, and felt her doubts falter.
★ 50445 out of 100,000 ★