Serenades, chapter 15

Deviation Actions

Literature Text

fifteen: how much do i owe you?

“Wake up. Are you all right?” Ava asked me, urgency in her voice. “You’re breathing heavily.”
“Yes, I’m just having a flashback. A very vivid one.”
“What was your family like? Are they still around? You already know so much about me, and I feel weird, because you’re so enigmatic.”
“Not that. I already knew who they are.”
“Well, we’ll talk about that later. What’s going on?”
“I’m remembering where I was before I came to Vaishali.”
“Where were you?”
Ava’s pupils dilated, subtle in her obsidian iris.
“Horrible things happened there.”
“Why didn’t you fucking tell me?” she screamed. “I had fucking family there. Something happened there. You were... please don’t say it.”
“Do you know anyone named Kimiya?” I asked her, and her only response was to run out and slam the door behind her.

“Where’s Ava?”
“She ran off. She told me she was going to get laid or something. Her words, not mine. Anyway, please, please,” she put her hands on my shoulders, “Don’t let anyone know. This is between us, her, and that guy she’s with.”
“The scandal could tear the Greens apart. And, of course, the other groups are going to jump at it at their first opportunity, the wake of rabid vultures.”
“I see. That makes sense. Besides, you always drifted in and out of love. While she’s gone, though, I have some plans. Joannicus and perhaps Anysia will be able to go to Phaselis or Tarentum and gather information.”
“And what of you?”
“I’m considering going with Anysia, Theopemptus, and Rivasoa as support.”
“Rivasoa? Isn’t she Massenyan? I’m not sure she’ll be allowed anywhere important.”
“She said she would be able to make a distraction. If Andriama and Mihanta come too. And they’re Menuthiasi.”
“I love the name Massenya. Just the way it rolls off the tongue.”
“I’d say the same about Aliu Amba.”
“It sounds very risky.”

“You’re a figurehead of everything we stand for. I had no idea you’d be this young.”
“Yeah, hard to believe, huh?” She sighed, watching the snow fall from the window.
“Anyway, how much do I owe you?”
“Owe me?” She took off her black coat and hung it on a hook. Snow fell in clumps and melted on the tile floor. “I’m not doing this for money, you know. Just to fill some emotional emptiness in my life,” she said, unbuttoning her silk shirt, printed with blue and yellow flowers. “What does that say about us?”
“I don’t think I can help you with that. It’s your first time, isn’t it?”
“First time willingly. Is it your first time too? Please tell me it is. I want you to feel as awkward as I do. I’d be really embarassed if you knew everything about pleasing me, when I barely understand what pleases you.”
“Oh. Um, are you sure you’re ready for this? Last time must have been traumatic, and there’s the possibility of a disease. How long has it been?”
“No,” Ava said. “I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready. I don’t think I ever want to fall in love again.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. I mean, he’s been nice to me, more than I could say about the one other guy I was with. I’m just upset, that’s all. Maybe in a week I’ll be less saturnine.” She put her shirt and cardigan back on and reclined on the sofa; faded burgundy velvet and cream lace. “It’s cold.”
“Do you want some anisette?”
“No, thanks.”
“A mug of warmed up apple cider would be fine. With cloves and a stick of cinnamon. Tea’s fine if you don’t have that, if it’s pomegranate tea, all the better. A duvet to wrap myself in, too.”
“I never got your name.”
“It’s a pretty name. Unusual, too. Did you escape from Pannonia?”
“Never been there and never want to. I’m pretty much anathema to them. I was born in the colonies, and I’m mixed, this isn’t some surgery they forced me to go through to make me more ethnically Selinian,” she laughed “So, what’s your name? I feel really dumb for not asking earlier. I do that a lot.” She laughed again.
“It’s Charisius.”
“Nice place. You live here alone?” The walls were papered with pale blue arabesques and decorated with white plaster carvings.
“I do now.” He cloaked Ava in the duvet and handed her a porcelain cup of cider.
“Thanks. You have the cinnamon stick and everything,” she smiled.
“The cloves are in there too. Was it warm enough? I was sort of experimenting with the timer.”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Marciana put on choral music and lit a censer, ceramic and printed with camellia and violet-tailed sylphs. The air felt redolent and heavy. She kneeled on the bed, smelling of pear soap. Marciana’s room had a bead curtain of red and white plastic, a lamp with a shade of amber-colored glass beads amongst various Yunanese statuettes on the dresser, a painting of roses above the desk, a lamp with colored glass flowers, pale green and pink blankets on the bed, a pale and faded Aredvian rug.
“You know, I haven’t been in your room.”
“Really? How strange. Ava suggested this to you, didn’t she?”
“Not so much. She asked why I didn’t love you.”
“We should. She ran off, and, you know, I think this is the first time since Tarentum you aren’t within a meter of her. You never had sex with her, did you?”
“No, just memorized the contours of her body and face.”
“You’re such a romantic. I wonder if you’ll take me to one of Shani’s moons some day. So, tell me, what’s the harm? Remember, this is between us, too.” She untied the strings on her shirt, and it fell away like flower petals in autumn. I cupped my hands on her pale breasts and roseate nipples. She licked my throat and breastbone with quick dartings of her tongue.
“Ava’s pathetic,” she said, her voice an affectionate lilt for such harsh words, running her finger across my shoulders with one hand, holding my hand against her breast, caressing with the other. Her nipples were hard now and poked against my flesh.
“That’s not like you.”
“We aren’t ourselves tonight.” She closed her eyes. Her finger circled my nipple. My fingers caressed her groin and thighs, the two abstract designs that may have been wings or coiled indian pipes on both sides of her coarse ginger pubic hair. “You’re trembling.”
“I’m cold. Your hand is cold, too.”
“I must admit, northern winter has its advantages. Are you nervous?”
“Shut up and kiss me.” A soft kiss, tasting of fake raspberry gloss. She splayed herself over me.

“I have to go now,” Ava said, putting her headset on, rolling up the duvet, placing the empty mug in the sink.
“Nice talking to you,” Charisius responded. Ava smiled and put on a Bharukan woman singing to a pulsing beat, strings, and distorted background vocals.
She walked down the spiraling stairs, three levels, wood railing. Light came from the above orange glass dome. A pigeon dove downward from its nest in a recess. Ava gasped and backed off to the plaster wall, muttering “fucking disgusting pigeons.” Someone wrote “this is an elevator” over the elevator door at the bottom, but none of the buttons outside were lit up or working. Ava laughed for a second and turned back to the front door. “You’re being silly, Ava,” she said to herself. “First the pigeon and now this? Grow up. You’re nineteen years old and still jumpy. Hey!” she said to a pigeon strutting about on the floor. “What are you looking at? Go on, get out of here!” Someone else had scrawled in charcoal a picture of someone aflame, running from a mushroom house with an exit sign on the lintel. She pushed open the door to biting cold, recoiling, pulling her coat tightly around her. Snow fell and swirled around the street lamps.
It wasn’t far to the subway station. It was brighter inside, almost too bright, and Ava stopped shivering. She walked down a long corridor of tiny white tiles, lit with fluorescent lights. Every fourth one glowed a pale melon yellow instead of the standard white. There were only a few people at the platform, down another set of stairs and half-completed. She looked at the carvings of skeletons and giraffes on a green-painted bench, wrote the word melancholia in immaculate script and her own statement about teapots with a pencil, barely finishing when she heard the train arrive.

“It was sublime, even perfect,” she said, pulling the comforter over us. A series of melismatic amens came from the speakers, as if in response. “Was this your first time?”
“Not my first time either. I’ve done it before, many ethnicities and both sexes. It’s hard to find a good same-sex affair outside of cheap smut, and that stuff is just insulting at times.”
“You always seemed so heartbreakingly vestal to me. Those eyes, that smile.”
“I know. Do you think I’m pretty?” A loaded question, I felt.
“Yes,” I admitted, but wouldn’t say before. Her hair was disheveled now, but it didn’t detract.
“Please say you want me.”
“Somehow, deep inside, I desired this.”
She mouthed something to me. I looked away, feeling awkward, and we drifted into sleep in each other’s embrace, an expression of utter serenity on her face.

I woke up and she was crying, we were still entwined in repose. She got up, shivered, and wrapped herself in the comforter.
“What are you hiding?”
“I’m just cold, that’s all,” her voice hoarse.
“Did it hurt? The tattoo, I mean.”
“Yeah. It felt really awkward too.” She put maroon corduroy pants and a pale blue shirt on. “I thought the hair was weird when I first saw it, but now I couldn’t imagine life without it.”
“I thought the same thing,” I said.

I was eating a bowl of something Marciana made for lunch with rice and vegetables.
“I see you appreciate what I do for you.” She put her arms around me. She had put on an olive green shirt with gorgeted sunangels over her blue shirt, a floppy white hat, a purple-stained wooden bracelet.
“Appreciate is hardly the right word. It’s more, well, I consider myself lucky that I’m getting anything to eat at all. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever had, it’s just, I don’t know, kind of bland, but I’m sure that’s not all your fault. They raided a supply cache recently, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, they did. Fresh vegetables and everything. Even a few pieces of meat for everyone. Maybe Ava’s right about how I don’t have any sense of what flavors complement each other.”
“You should also know that certain vegetables don’t go together. Like broccoli and carrots. Carrots taste better when they’re cooked really well, beans aren’t but it’s not as bad as overcooked broccoli. The flavors work, but you have to get it perfectly.”

Marciana treated me to dinner at Lune Noir that night, in opulence and refinement. It overlooked the city reflecting on the river from the fifteenth floor of a now-vacant hotel building. She had another performance that night, again as a solo soprano in an ode to pacifism. She gave her coat to the attendant and put her cardigan on the back of the seat. Elsewhere in the room, an Eastern woman played the piano. The centerpiece of the room was a tank with a lionfish and several luminous jellyfish blindly bobbing with the undulations of water in it.
“Debussy, I believe. I’d recognize his work anywhere. No, I’m not nearly accomplished enough to play it, or accomplished enough to play much of anything, just a few bars of a Satie work. I hear her or Ava play guitar and it seems so natural to them that I feel jealous. I’m sorry about last night.” She paused to order a glass of cherry wine. “I wanted passion and you gave it to me. I’m not going to attempt to excuse myself this time.”

“How do I contact Ava? I know how to use the thing.”
“Lullabies For Ava.”
“Oh. But will she talk to me?” She brushed her hair behind her ear.
“Just try it.”
“Hi. You’re coming to my performance, right? Not the same place as the last time. Ok, green to Tinmarket, and then blue to Mediolanum Philharmonic. A bit past the Grand Palace and Victory Square. Whatever you do, don’t go past Mulberry Street or Linden Street.” She smiled. “She said yes.”
“Where do we meet?”
“I don’t think she wants to meet up with us. But she’ll be there.”
“Are you in the one tomorrow?”
“I refuse to see it. It’s too close to me.”

Mediolanum Philharmonic was exquisite granite and marble, with statues of angels and muses at the entrance, burgundy carpets and gilt and painted cloudscapes inside.

“The tunnels are spooky, huh?” Marciana said. We were at Tinmarket Station, waiting for a transfer back home, us and nobody else.
“Yeah.” It was quiet this late, with only an inchoate roar and the hum of the fluorescent lights I tuned out by the time the train arrived. “Are the tunnels as extensive as Tarentum’s? You could get lost for weeks there. Ava said you never really know a city until you’ve been deep within its bowels.”
“I don’t know. I’m not one to explore them. The station this late is bad enough, thank you. That’s interesting,” she said, something catching her eye.
“What?” I asked.
“Four thousand people are injured by teapots every day.” Blood red fingernails and pale hands against dull green paint. There were other carvings, a garden of arcane delights with fantastic beasts with long necks and horns or fans of prehensile tentacles, of heron knights and skeletons, some erotic poetry. On the wall of the station were more refined and purposeful carvings of faceted gems, a sunburst and crescent moon with an aura of dots above the openings to the tunnels.
“That many?”
The train arrived with a sudden burst of noise and flickering light. Marciana held up her skirt and went up the steps into the train. There were three others here, two men standing, both in jeans and white shirts and heavy black jackets, and a woman with black hair, blue and white jacket, pink plaid skirt, black stockings, not Ava. They were talking, but their voices were soon muffled by the rushing of air, by the clattering of the train against rails. A fourth, unseen, piloted the train.
“I feel I’m going to be mugged wearing this.” Black lace and crimson satin, a gray wool coat, a glimpse of white wool cardigan, a black scarf with white dots wrapped casually around her neck, a pink and white carnation and a silver headband studded with tiny sapphires and an amethyst butterfly in her jasmine-scented hair, rose quartz and gold earrings. Her eyes were decorated with fuchsia and dove gray. She sat down, adjusted her dress, smoothed out the skirt. I sat down next to her. “Do you think the boots look funny? I’d rather not wear ten centimeter heels when there are stairs involved.”
“You know, for a moment, you sounded like Cecilia. And yeah, the boots look silly. I wouldn’t worry about being mugged; this city’s so empty.”
“Really? Hey, have you seen Ava? I had to concentrate too hard to notice her in the audience.”
“No. I haven’t seen her since she ran off.”
“Did she come home that night, when, you know?” She acted like she didn’t want to say sex or fuck. She never did.
“Not in the same room. I don’t know, I was half-asleep and naked and didn’t want to check.” I changed the subject. “Catellus told me about the citizenship test. You think you’d be able to pass the mathematics section?”
“I was atrocious at geometry,” she laughed. “I had trouble visualizing it, and they’d probably add a dimension or two or the square root of two. I’d probably kerfunkle the rest because everything’s so high stakes and miss a bubble by mistake and not realize I’ve been putting everything else in the wrong bubble. And I don’t think they’d give partial credit if you get the signs wrong. But I bet it’s like everything else. They’ll ask me to circle the number 61. They’ll ask Ava to create a divisibility test for the number 61, solve the Schrodinger Equation for all isotopes of samarium, and since she’s mixed, they’ll tell her where samarium is, and prove that the sum of two natural numbers raised to a power greater than two will never equal a natural number raised to that power. I’d hope she’d have the sense to write ‘do you know how to solve this?’ in the space provided.”
We got off the train, took the escalator back to the streets. The street lamps and lights in the windows were on, but the street was eerily devoid of life. I buttoned up my coat and wrapped my scarf around my face to keep the chill from getting to me.
“Too cold for heels, too,” Marciana said, shivering. She put her arms around me and our body heat kept us warm. “It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it?”
“It reminds me of a cold morning when I was in Tarentum, the first real snowfall and the streets were empty. I miss Ava.”
“You’ll get over it. Don’t move away like that. I like to be held. I hate feeling vulnerable.”
“I’m used to being with Ava. She never liked to be held or anything. Sometimes she’d ask me to stroke her hair or run my fingers on her back, but that’s it. She’d probably rollerskate home. It’s perfect for that.”
“It’s too snowy for that, I think. Otherwise, you’re right, perfect.”

“I’m heading out now. Bye.” And then she mouthed something to me, wrapping her white and green keffiyeh around her neck. Before that, she changed from her dress into a plaid button-down shirt, burgundy shirt with longer sleeves, and skinny jeans in front of me, fixed her hair, put her gray coat back on. She left the music on, hypnagogic dance music for late nights, skittering and flickering pops and clicks and ethereal synth pulses, languid vocals and strings. I turned it off an hour after, as it ended with the thumping of distant and muffled taiko drums, a brief speech recorded backwards, and washes of celestial synths, drifting away to the outer darkness and decaying into atmospherics and the hint of a scratched tape.
Tonight, there was nobody to curl next to in bed, to caress, to whisper nothings, with Marciana absent, not that I was in the mood to fuck again and desperately trying to convince myself that I wasn’t in love with her, and Ava antipathetic. I made myself a cup of tea in a futile effort to take my mind off of them and went back to Marciana’s bedroom to sleep. She was in the next room with Purajana, or perhaps down at the pool or a restaurant. I wondered what she felt. I heard nothing, just the rumbling of the furnace far below.

I woke up before the sun rose, tired but unable to get back to sleep, turning on the lamp and recoiling from the blistering white light and wrapping my face in the duvet until the afterimages faded, attempting a shower in near-darkness and a cup of lime tea before getting back into my bed and lying down, staring at the ceiling and wondering about Marciana.

“Greetings. I’m Anysia Doletskaya,” the woman sitting near the window said. She had short black hair and large eyes, serene-faced and serene voiced, dressed in a black wool coat, black skirt, red stockings, and black boots. “Shall we go back outside, where it’s quieter?” It was a clear and chilly day, and the patrols of armed men and women in forest green coats, keffiyeh, and black hats were making me feel ill at ease, even if they were on our side.
The music was a pulsing beat and makeshift percussion, a female vocalist chanting and singing in a language that could be Selinian, but probably wasn’t.
“This is fine.” It wasn’t that much warmer in here, but there wasn’t any wind to deal with. “So, any idea what language this is?”
“I don’t know. I’d guess Nevdashti or Sophenese, or one of the Bharukan languages or something. Hey, Therese, where did you get this?”
“I don’t know, I just found it,” the woman at the counter, a bespectacled blonde with short hair tied in a bun and held with a metal clip, wearing a velvet jacket, teal shirt, and a mitten on one hand, shouted back to Anysia, and went back to work.
“So, can I ask you something?”
“You and Marciana, well, you’re not from here like I am. May I ask what you two have to gain from helping us?”
“We were living Ain Sifna and we desire independency ourselves.”
“I see. Well, I know Veridiana, and she’s proven herself to be very devoted.” Bass guitar, chimes and more percussion, flutes, the sampled sound of tides rolling in came from the speakers. “The revolution’s attracted people from all over the Occident. And not just idealists like us. Professional mercenaries, adventurers, caterans, privateers, bourgoise interested in creating a new playground for the super-rich ass violinists like another Aleria, zealots who are promised a better place in heaven by the bishops of Pannonia or by the Church of Ariosophy if they can kill even a single Chenlan, ultranationalists courted by Volusian who see Mediolanum as easy spoils they can wrest from us, and so on. You must pardon me for finding foreigners not exactly trustworthy people. Sometimes, I think you’re just another cateran.”
“I know what you mean. Sometimes it feels like Marciana’s just along for the ride. But don’t take it the wrong way, she’s a wonderful person.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Any help against the Pannonians is necessary. They’re fierce fighters, despite having no real reason to be here. They’re as poorly equipped as we are, but they have a burning hatred inside of them. At times, I actually pity them, but I fear them more. I fear Saugumas agents amongst our own, to the point where I won’t allow Pannonians access to important information. I know they understand why; they don’t seem to mind.”
We went back outside, Anysia picked up a leaflet she found drifting in the cold breeze, looked at it head askew, dismissingly.
“Can you believe this nonsense? Free? Selinia is not our enemy? I’m only sending the people of Mediolanum to their deaths? Under Lepidus’ regime? Run to them and they’ll put you to work until you die, and all your effort spent helping them to kill more of us. Or have you swinging from a rope at the Valley of Peaches. Oh well, are you out of toilet paper, by any chance? Are you in need of kindling?”

She took us to Green headquarters, a basement furnished with scavenged furniture, some of it cheap and mass produced, some of it exquisitely designed and appearing as if it was found in a noble’s manor, all arranged haphazardly. Veridiana was lounging in one of the more comfortable looking chairs, she was dressed in a black skirt with blue flowers, a silken shirt with peacock feather print, a moss-green vest held with a thick belt, necklaces of plastic grapes and cherries and beads, her hair tied with a purple and green and yellow cloth headband. She waved to me, but I turned away.
“We had a wonderful place, a six story building out near the river, but most of us are afraid to use it what with the other factions getting a bit too bold. We lose territory daily. It won’t be long before it falls.” She brought up a map on the screen, our territory in green, even though we shared it with Reds, buffered from the gray surrounding us by no man’s land, white across the river, and blue on the outskirts of the city. Each territory was marked with a flag, the green and black with a red star and crossed rifles of our faction, the lopsided cross in black and white on a red background of the Blacks and Grays, the seal of the local noble family on the blue territory, Selinia’s flag on the white.
“I thought you were going with Marciana.”
“I decided against it. I’m too much of a public figure here, being on the triumvirate and all now that Pothinus is dead. I sent Peleusis instead.”
“Veridiana and I don’t trust Theopemptus, considering the circumstances of how he became a triumvir, after Pothinus was assassinated by condottieri. I know he was involved, and all the while, he courts votes by masquerading as a moderate and mediating with the other factions. Damn it, it’s not democratic! However, at this point, we have no reason to believe he’s with Selinia, and, well, accidents may happen. And I hope they do, because I don’t think we have the votes to remove him, we don’t dare kill him ourselves, he’s far too dangerous alive. He dies there, and the worst that could happen is they make a martyr of him, and I’d rather Selinia give him martyrdom than power. Well, while they’re there, guess what you’ll be doing. We don’t need the information if the Selinians do the dirty work, but it will be good to have in case he survives. I know about your falling out with Ava; Marciana told me. It’s not your fault, she didn’t listen to whatever you were going to say.”
I blurted out “I did what I could.”
“What? I don’t know what you mean.”
“So, while we’re rid of Theopemptus for now, I want you to investigate his apartment and bring me anything suspicious you find. Don’t worry about the legality of it, Veridiana agrees that our little act of espionage is a necessary evil. I thought about getting some of our own in the Blacks, but you’d need to kill someone to get in, and if we’re clever enough to use blanks and blood packs, they’ll just make sure the victim is dead”

“By the way, how much of the art gallery did you see with Ava?”
“Just a few rooms.”
“Oh. There’s some interesting stuff in there.”
We went in the main entrance this time, a respite from the cold, with an unpatterned marble floor, and the dome showing a holographic starfield. Some photographs on the wall depicted a tank of water with the motion of rainbow-colored dyes in turbulence. Other paintings had volumetric imagers or liquid crystal screens showing the process of making them; painting over thrown or falling blocks or arrangements of colorful rods, the colors on the paper bleeding together. The galleries were strangely devoid of people, in one room, there was only a woman a head taller than I was, Gedian by her style of clothing, a floor-length shift woven in pastel cloth, a scarlet and gold thread scarf tied around her head. In the next room, I saw a woman I thought was Ava, her black hair in that unruly state between cropped short and left long, dressed in a purple cotton sweater over an oversized purple velvet shirt, black leggings, black boots, a black scarf obscuring silver and pewter chains and pendants, a black and white striped glove on one hand. When I got closer, I noticed her eyes were too round, too light.
“This room’s intriguing” Anysia said. She took her coat off, draped it over one shoulder. A necklace of silver mint leaves glittered under a colorful plaid scarf.
“I don’t see anything,” I said. “It looks like one of the bureaus in Phaselis.”
“The room is the exhibit. It’s interactive. Um, I think Piazzi designed it off of virtualspace stuff from Terra. There are two others in Lanxang. One’s really amazing but lonely as the worst hells, the other is kind of nice but kind of disjointed as well.”
“Any problems with culture warriors?”
“Just that one incident with the Eastern art and some stuff from Terra, and they’ve been giving Veridiana grief because they think art should be reserved for an intellectual elite and letting just anyone, and by that, I mean lower categories and foreigners and people from the so-called autonomous territories grasp art degrades the whole of art, or whatever. Authoritarians are just so hostile to art. It’s nothing more than propaganda to them. We’ve been vigilant since, but I’m afraid we can’t afford to spend manpower on this place, so I’ve proposed sealing off all the galleries or temporarily sending smaller works of art to Lanxang until we can do something about the culture warriors. What’s it like where you’re from?”
“My ex is an artist. Adelina Daniculescu. I doubt you’ve heard of her. But mostly anyone cultured was looked at as acting like they’re too good for everyone, and artists were met with scorn and derision. I’ve come to respect people who can just admit they don’t understand this and don’t like their definition of art being challenged more than the lowbrow snobbery wrapped in convoluted sentences. I think I’ll like it here when we win.”
She laughed. “Yeah, when. Hey, what do you think of this one?” A naked man and woman, painted in tempera, plucking overgrown uranium atoms made from glass, off of a fig tree, surrounded by deformed and mutated wildlife, placing them into canisters, photographs of a mushroom cloud and devastated cities beyond the walls of Eden.
“How much of a stink do you suppose they raised about this one?”
“The artist made the statement that knowledge for its own sake isn’t evil, yet it can be horribly misapplied. A pretty big one, actually.”

We spent hours wandering in there where I could take my mind off of Ava, off of the conflict, off of everything, and it was night when we got out, the city was as empty as ever, a chill in the air and underlying tension. It felt like the city had been evacuated.

“It seems awfully quiet, even for the wee hours,” Marciana remarked. She pulled her scarves and wool balaclava from her face, walked through the main lobby, decorated in granite tiled floors and blue and lavender veined gray marble with bas reliefs in blackwood to the sides of the door, took the spiral staircase around a glass prism to the fourth floor. A window overlooked the city, but they could only see the surrounding walls from their vantage point.

“It seems you’ll need a key to open it. A pity we can’t just shut down the security system,” Peleusis said.
“It’s fine, I had this planned. I’m going to send you one via the pneuma. It’s won’t get us everywhere, but I can’t just extract an officer’s eyeball. I’d help you get in if mine was acceptable.”
“Maybe we could overload the processors. Too bad we don’t have anything, and I’d be lying if I said simply asking it to calculate pi would work.”
“If you do that, the place will just go under complete lockdown until the Ministry for Public Security arrives and disposes of the source of the anomaly.”

“Well, it’s obvious. Legate Sophronius is planning an invasion. What’s this, though? A new model of Malach, I guess. There’s a description. Can you read this, anyone?”
“I can not,” Joannicus said. “Every time a translator for High Selinian appears on the Network, it gets shut down or blocked here. It appears that this model has flight capabilities and can create chaayas of itself. And this appears to be a recording of a testing session. I don’t think we have time to watch it here, but I’ll put it on my handheld.”
“I can understand a bit of it, but not much. I find it an irritatingly convoluted language that I suspect is designed to thwart even the best translation algorithms, but a military document detailing plans for an invasion shouldn’t be too difficult. Ah! We’re so lucky the names for avatars and specialized troops are unchanged. They made six complete models of the new Malach, and they’ll be using them there. Chaaya range is 20 meters, one at a time if I’m reading this correctly.”
“Send to Lanxang, then?” Peleusis said. He still wore his balaclava, and his voice was muffled.
“Yes, we should have enough time to get a translation. We’ll have to do the fighting on our own.” Marciana said. She searched the rest of the room, looked at a reel of panels depicting various Malachim variants with their statistics and weaponry. They left the research laboratory and went back down to the first floor. “Lucky for us, they aren’t bringing seraphim.”
They stepped out and green lights flashed, klaxons blared. A recorded voice said “Code green, I repeat, code green.”
“What’s code green?”
“Intruders, I’m guessing, and that means us. What are the odds that something else will happen when we’re here?”
“Damn. Change of plans. We need to get to the exit immediately.”

When they reached the lobby, they found the doors barred, the lobby filled with soldiers, both Esercito and Ministry for Public Security.
“Hands up. Surrender immediately or we will take forceful action,” an officer on a floating disk said. “Reveal your faces to us.”
“What happened?”
“I, I don’t know.”
“Can you operate a cataphract?” Marciana looked at Joannicus.
“Not very well, but I’ll try to do something.” Joannicus responded.
“Go, get in one. I’ll do what I can about them,” Marciana said. She mass texted “The rest of you, go down that junk escalator. I’ll be with you in a second. There’s a stairwell we can use, in case something useful accidentally ended up there.” She said “I’m sorry, sir, I’m new here, sir, I’m the new secretary, sir, it’s cold out there so I had the balaclava, and I got a bit lost, sir.”

The tile floor at the bottom of the junk escalator, where visible instead of obscured by piles of broken machinery and detritus, was covered in faintly luminous blue goo.
“Yuck. What’s all this stuff on the floor?” Marciana asked. “I’ve seen that glowing fungus before and this is not that fungus. I hope the stuff isn’t sentient.”
“An industrial byproduct, I suppose,” Peleusis said. “Oh, and on the subject of byproducts, I had a backup plan in case this happened. I managed to install a program on that terminal that released some byproducts upstairs, and they can’t seal the place off. It should provide a suitable distraction. I just hope we won’t have to go through it.”
“Won’t take them long to figure out what we’re doing down here.”
“The door isn’t locked.” Peleusis said, pushing the button on the side of the door. The door slid open with a shriek, leading to passages and a metal stairway. “Where’s Joannicus?”
“Theopemptus, for that matter. I didn’t tell him to do anything.”
“Joannicus, where are you?” Marciana shouted into her handheld.
“Code violet, I repeat, code violet.”
“Our byproducts, no doubt.”

There was one of the Malach prototypes at the top of the stairs. Its eyes flashed a pale blue, and it sprayed a cloud of icy mist, jumped up, and fired a spurt of violet pulses that nearly hit Peleusis. It landed, and its eyes flashed red, Marciana jumped back, and it shot a gout of flame. And then it went haywire, did a corybantic jig, its eyes flashing beryline, and threw a mine that stuck to the wall, black marble veined with yellow like glowing claw marks.
“Don’t touch it. Don’t even go near it. It can probably remote detonate it.”

“What of our byproducts?” There were tubs of water in this room covered in thick rubber netting, a tentacle or eyestalk peering out, a thick dorsal fin that looked like it had been dipped in crude oil. There were tables covered in plants, some like clams with cactus spines on tables under bright fluorescent lamps.
“There are a few of them on the prowl,” Peleusis said, pointing at what looked like a hybrid of a panther and some creature of the deep, mechanical forearms and whiplike tail, eyes like polished rubies, amongst humanoid figures in lurid-lit cylindrical tanks. Another creature behind it, a tusked creature with gray skin.
“I don’t want to kill the things.”
“That’s fine, but sometimes, we won’t have a choice.”

“Are you sure it’s safe to take the shuttle to the staging point?”
“I’m sure. You forget why I’m around. I’m the girl with the psionic powers, and I got us out of that mess with security. And if they have any titans left over, I’ll be sure to hijack one.”
“Have you ever used that befriend thing around others?”
“A few times. But I get these terrible headaches and it breaks down and they’re usually upset when they find out. So I only end up hurting both of us. I don’t like to use it for malicious purposes, anyway.”
“Malicious purposes?”
“You know, getting close to someone you despise and revealing their darkest secrets to people who would pay well for that kind of information. I don’t do it because I don’t like it and I don’t like the people who do it. If you can maliciously hurt someone who trusts or loves you, if you can side with people you don’t even like to destroy someone you’re close to, you have no sympathy and you’re defective for not having sympathy.”
“So, what am I thinking about now?”
“I can’t read minds, silly. If it were possible to analyze brain waves and put together something coherent, the Siguranta would know about it.”
“How did you get this?”
“Seduced a man in the State Security Bureau’s Kantipur Division. Not one of my prouder moments. I was younger, I was more naïve, and I feel like I just made things worse in Sarnath. That’s why I have this,” she showed him the inverted cross necklace.

Harsh fluorescent lights came on inside the largest Titan. Marciana walked through the hold to the front and sat in one of the chairs. Peleusis sat down next to her.
“I presume I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat, you in the gunner’s. This card should work.” A display read “Indricotherium-class Titan systems online” in bright orange against a dark brown background.
“This isn’t a gang of Knights of the Cross we’re messing with. Or even Decemviri.”
“I know. Just trust me on this. Time to throw a wrench into their gears.”
Peleusis selected needle rockets in a green rectangle and launched a salvo. A chain of explosions rocked the room, and the Titan trembled. From outside, “Code Orange, repeat, Code Orange.”
“I think it’s too late for that. Let’s just get out.”
“I’m trying to break free. It’s five less titans.”
“Five less titans that may not be meant for us.”
“If they aren’t meant for us, they’re meant for Bharuka or Nevdasht or Nicopolis. Besides, any damage we can do to Sophronius’ war effort is good enough.”
“Emergency shutdown activated,” came a monotone voice on the loudspeaker. The humming of equipment stopped. Marciana kicked in the screen.
“Why did you do that?”
“To cause more damage. Why else?”
More pomegranates, of course. And an apple, along with loss of innocence. I didn't plan that one, though, it just sort of fell into position.

If Marciana had to fill out a form that asked her sexual orientation, she'd just put "normal."

This Is An Elevator and the mushroom house that contains the exit is someone's artwork.

Skeletons and tentacled giraffes were drawn on a table at the Art Institute of Boston. How the hell does Ava know what a giraffe is? Don't bother questioning it. I'm sure you'd recognize a triceratops if someone pointed one out to you. A galeaspid might require a bit more effort.

There was a giraffopus on The Simpsons some time in 2009, but I don't think it has anything to do with this.

Lune Noir. It's a level in a Marathon total conversion. It's a fucking pun, too!

Lullabies to Violaine + Avalyn =

On malicious purposes, I had someone in mind when I wrote that. I'm sure every one of you agrees with Marciana. Unless you're a hunewearl.
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