The convoy appeared in a cloud of dust against the Martian dawn atop the eastern hills. Sister Hecuba had just connected the catheter to its port over her right breast. She tried to measure the distance in drops—how much glucose did she have time for? Meeting visitors from any faction required her cognitive functions at optimal condition. Dust clouds hid the accompanying riders and she couldn’t make out their uniforms. No insignia were visible on the transports. Were they bringing food, or were they bringing more war into the chapel?
“Oh, shush,” Hecuba told her grumbling gut. One deep breath, and she instructed her brain to temporarily disrupt signals from her empty stomach. When she’d donned the purple almost five decades ago—merely a child then—she thought she'd left the famine and hardship of the once-blue planet behind. Here she was now, as withered as the red brick layer over the metal walls of their chapel and just as hungry as her twelve-year-old self.
One more minute, she prayed, but she knew she couldn't afford one. She fumbled to remove the drip, and droplets of blood smeared the end of her tunneled catheter and pinprick pain shot into her armpit. The Order had chosen purple and burgundy as their colors for a reason; bloodstains wouldn't show. She adjusted her robes, straightened her apron and peeked out of the window.
The riders were closer now. Were they in danger? The chapels of Panacea’s Disciples served as sanctuaries across the solar system, but Hecuba had studied enough to know that such conventions rarely lasted. She fingered the implant on her right temple, forced her neurons to branch out to unfamiliar paths, and transmitted a quick warning to Sister Ismene at the infirmary at the far end of the chapel: “My love. Visitors.”
A throbbing headache around the implant answered her, the tantrum of famished neurons that were never wired for telepathy. She ought to have another kind of implant for that, but sometimes her brain humored her.
She reached out again. Multicolored dots of light flickered before her eyes. It worked. Ismene heard her. And her stomach resumed grumbling. With a sigh, she pulled the crimson curtain over the recuperation alcove behind her and headed towards the main hall to welcome their visitors. They'd better be bearing gifts. And medical supplies. And food.
A squad of about ten soldiers came bearing two more wounded and one child―a girl of around thirteen. Their leader, who sported the crest of the winged sphinx―insignia of New Thebes and Ismene's former city-state, thank the gods of all the stars―dragged the girl forward by the elbow. Poor kid―someone had really tried to make her presentable by braiding that frizzy black hair and cleaning the muck from her face and from under her fingernails. But a peasant would always be a peasant, even in fine Cydonian silks. Longing spiced with guilt rose in Hecuba's gut. Another peasant girl, another regret in Hecuba's heart, another distraction when her Hall swarmed with soldiers.
The child wasn’t the only peasant in this hall. The soldiers who'd carried in the wounded and had set their gear by the entrance hadn’t been born soldiers. Hecuba squared her shoulders as much as her aching back allowed. She'd been one, too, the daughter of farmers and granddaughter of coalminers, who now wore purple but had never renounced her ancestors. When the man dragging the child removed his headgear, he met her gaze. Middle-aged―his face and his backbone had known hardship and comfort in equal parts. She knew his kind: now-noblemen, descendants of once-heroes.
Aren't they all.
“Your blessings, Reverend Mother.” He attempted a slight bow of his head, without releasing the child who kept squirming. “I am Counselor Nestor, of the House Hermokrates.”
“Blessings, blessings.” Hecuba twirled her wrist, mimicking long-abandoned rituals that carried little meaning out there. “And it's Sister. Enough with this fixation all you New-Thebans have with your mothers. Where are my supplies?”
“My apologies, we are not a supply caravan. I have come―”
“Empty-handed, obviously.” She flicked her wrist towards the general direction of the girl. “Unless you expect us to eat … her?”
“She,” he shoved the girl forward, “is Sister Ismene's replacement.”
“I wasn't told of a replacement.”
She clenched her jaw. Ismene was leaving the chapel? She was leaving her? Nothing had indicated as much—not in words, not in the way her body coiled around Hecuba's old bones in their narrow cot at night, not by the fleeting brush of fingers against her skin. The passion of their earlier years had mellowed with time, but not their love. No additional adrenaline rushes at the anticipation of a parting, but the same level of endorphins released at their simple shared pleasures: a moment of quiet after every healing session, watching the sun set behind Olympus Mons with a hot cup of herbal brew—a little tangy, a little bland, but still smelling of a long-ruined homeworld. Hecuba thought she would have sensed it if Ismene was hiding something from her. Wouldn't she?
“I don't need a replacement. I need food.” Hecuba crossed her arms. “And glucose drips, if you need your soldiers healed any time soon. You drop them at my doorstep and expect us to get them battle-ready with what? Bitter algae porridge spiced with fresh Martian sand, with a side of pebbles?”
Nestor raised his chin. “Her Ladyship will return to New Thebes where she belongs. Then we can discuss supplies.”
“But I don't wanna be no stinkin' sarcomancer!” The girl almost escaped Nestor's hold.
Wait until you're hungry enough, child. A quick scan of Nestor's vitals and hormonal levels told her all she needed to know: sincerity, stubbornness—or was that conviction?
“Lemme go!” The girl kicked Nestor in the shin.
His mouth twisted and he raised his arm.
“None of that, boy.” Hecuba kept her voice steady, her words simple. Then she blinked.
Nestor's arm dropped limp at his side. His lackeys moved as if to raise their weapons. One glance from her made them rethink that. These farmhands-turned-soldiers remembered the unwritten rule of every Purple Hall: no violence tolerated under the dome. Hadn't Nestor remembered, or had he decided that such rules didn't apply to him? Hadn't he learned to fear the wrath of a sarcomancer? Ah, that name creeping into her narrative again. How she loathed it, that name the common folk had given to her Order. She loathed even more how seamlessly it fit, how much power that one word held, more than any pretentious title their wise elders had ever conceived.
The girl escaped Nestor's hold and scurried to the wall. The soldiers retreated, suddenly busy checking on their gear and their wounded comrades. Nestor gawked at Hecuba, his good hand rubbing his paralyzed arm. Silly boy. Dissolving a blood clot in the brain required the same telekinesis as creating one. Oaths be damned, Order be damned, she could break every last bone in his body with the same ease she could mend them. Fear bred obedience, and she'd long lost the patience to educate those determined not to learn.
“Will you behave now?” The sheepdog of her childhood years, back at her family's farm, would always wag his tail when she'd use that tone.
Tail-less but cooperative, Nestor nodded, though he growled when she restored the synapses of his arm. His nerves lit up with the ferocity of myriad pinpricks beneath his skin.
“Will you?” She turned to the girl.
The girl nodded, now a bundle of bony limbs by the wall. Her neural pathways lit up like the night sky, as she measured Hecuba from worn boots to gray hair. The unfortunate girl was more than she seemed.
Hecuba reached into her apron's pocket and produced the protein bar she'd been saving for dinner. Her fingertips rubbed the packaging as if to taste the delicious nutty goodness inside, then held it out.
“Here. Yours. If you tell me your name.”
Nestor opened his mouth as if to protest, but the girl darted to Hecuba and snatched the bar.
“Lasha,” she mumbled.
In the few seconds it took the bar to vanish, Hecuba reached out to push back the pitiful attempts at braiding to examine the chip implanted on Lasha's temple. Barely days old, with fresh scabs, swollen tissue, and incomplete neural connections. Her fingertips against Lasha's forehead, and she sensed confused neurons awaiting vital instructions never given. She withdrew her hand and balled it into a fist. Rage choked her. No brother or sister worthy of their purples had done that. This was a back-alley job. The poor girl was lucky she wasn't on the ground convulsing. Hecuba turned to Nestor, who had no idea how close he was to being disassembled into the bloody sum of his parts.
“What have you done?” But another question burned in her: from which unfortunate sister's head have you ripped that implant out? But she dared not utter the horror that implied. So she kept it to herself. For now.
He scoffed. “What needed to be done. I need her Ladyship back. According to your Order’s protocol, you must serve in pairs. So I brought you a fresh one.”
“You idiot. Necessity becomes protocol with time, but they're not the same. I have no use for her. Not like this.”
There were a few tomes on the Order's rules and traditions she could throw at that thick head of his, if it would make a difference. There was a reason they never served on their own but always in pairs, more if their numbers allowed. They were each other's fail-safes. If one snapped, another would be there to shut down the defective member. It happened often, early on: the human brain unprepared to deal with this level of empathy, sensing the full range of human emotions and pain from a simple splinter to the prolonged births of breech infants. After one break too many, after a body count too high and an order harboring healers-turned-mass murderers, measures had been taken to avoid further horrors. Especially after New Argos. And now rules had grown to flexible regulations, their horrific origin conveniently swept under purple and burgundy rugs.
By the wall, Lasha licked her fingertips, soothing her confused neurons with sugary treats so they wouldn't branch out in uncharted, chaotic, dangerous paths. Hecuba wanted to hug the girl, to tell her it’s going to be all right. It would be a lie. And Lasha would know—her implant already allowed her to sense changes in heartbeat and breathing. A useful skill, but far from even the basics in a sarcomancer's training.
If I snap, she won’t be able to stop me.
Hecuba drew a deep breath and forced her voice to remain civil. “She needs training. I cannot do it. I’m busy with the war. Remember the war? Where your men were wounded?”
Nestor's lips formed a bloodless line. When he spoke again, his voice had hardened.
“Your persistence grows tiring, Sister. This is not a request. It’s an order.” He took a step forward.
“Order me again. Please.” And I'll pull your vocal cords out through your nose.
But only a hiccup left his throat, and endorphins flooded her brain just in time―the warm, consoling feeling of being rocked in a cradle. A smell of orange blossoms in her shadow, and a soft, steady voice.
“Counselor Nestor. I did not expect you here, out in our wilderlands.”
Her fail-safe, her partner, her friend, her love that gave meaning to a life at the trenches of human suffering. Ismene walked in the hall tall and slender like a cypress, her purples pristine as if she hadn’t spent her night with the wounded, her fiery hair neatly braided on her back. Like most of the Mars-born, she dyed it to fake a genetic connection with that stubborn rock. Hecuba didn’t care; little lies and little vanities were the spice of life, even a life such as theirs.
“My Lady.” And now Nestor took a full bow, now his voice mellowed, now the lines around his eyes softened.
Such a notable change inwards, too, from a hardened politician who’d ordered the forcible enhancement of a girl he'd thought none would miss. It wasn't love, but his entire nervous system lit up with affection and loyalty, bundled with enough fanaticism to overwhelm objective thinking. It was what humans harbored for those they put on pedestals, by royalty or by sainthood. That poor fool, he was caught in a web that could send armies on decades-long sieges and crusades.
Ismene smiled at him, the same way she'd smiled last night at a young man while they amputated his leg.
“Counselor, I stopped being 'your Lady' years ago. I'm ‘Sister Ismene’ now.”
Your Lady. Your Exaltedness. Or, Your Painfulness. Or, Scourge of New Argos. Or, Our Lady of Slaughter. And a few more choice names for the woman who had once marched through a city ripping out throats, crushing hearts, snapping necks, and spilling guts. All it took was a few flicks of her wrists for the city's streets to run red. Plenty of contradicting accounts from that day and the days that followed signaled the decline of their Order. Hecuba had been there in the Argos charter of the Order, struggling to save anyone she could. Until Ismene had crossed the antechamber and marched into the main hall, her face blank, her garments and face soiled with gore, her boots leaving red footprints behind her. Her march came to a halt at Hecuba's feet. After she'd spared no one of the city's occupying forces, she awaited her rightful termination at the will of one of her sistren.
Hecuba loved her for that moment of surrender, and loved her still the same. She didn't shut Ismene's implant off then—she couldn't. No one else would, as it turned out. Ismene's slaughter had ended a fifty-year-long war. It had been Ismene's choice, not a psychotic break, and it rattled their Order to its core. New rules and regulations were enforced, forbidding them from participating in warfare in any capacity other than healers. Many Master Torturers retired that week—one way or another. Ismene had joined Hecuba in this previously abandoned shrine to live her days in service and exile. To aid the peasants of the algae farms and the agro domes, their orders had said. But they both had seen it for what it was: a fancy and elaborate way of “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Not “out” enough, apparently, as Nestor's visit indicated.
Was Nestor hoping for a repeat performance of New Argos? The current conflict had already dragged on for too long, had depleted New Theban resources and claimed too many lives. What had started this one Hecuba couldn't tell. Men always found reasons to kill each other. She'd heard whispers from the injured. Some dispute over land, that brittle red dirt, or power lines, or perhaps water lines. Or was it about the workers, who slaved over the stubborn soil on measly rations of water and algae gruel, with no heat for their elderly and the sick? That seemed about right. If so, Nestor was dealing not with war but with revolt.
Hah. Let him deal with that. Hecuba crossed her arms and waited for Ismene to tell her visitors to pound red sand.
“But, my Lady,” Nestor continued with a slow shake of his head, brain overflowing with denial. “My Lady, your father is dead. You're his firstborn. With the war still raging, you―”
“Yes, the war. You have wounded?” Ismene brushed past him, past his yearning, past his rehearsed speech on family and duty, past the hatred seeping into his words about those damned rebels who threatened their way of life, and knelt by the two wounded soldiers.
Hecuba's face burned. Stupid hag, wallowing so deep in memories, that you've left the poor boys waiting? Move your bones! She picked up her skirts and hurried to join Ismene. A first nudge at blood vessels to begin their mending, to white blood cells to deal with infection, and to synapses to mellow little contractions and pain. Their damage appeared manageable―messy, but they'd make it in one piece. Ismene instructed two of the soldiers standing idle by to carry their injured comrades to the infirmary, and turned to face Nestor.
“My old friend,” Ismene cut him off, and placed her palm on his arm. “This is my life now. Choose one of my cousins. Surely, they can't all be incompetent degenerates.”
Hecuba yearned to insert herself between the two, to sever for good any bond that still connected them, but Ismene's light touch could be more than a gesture. Perhaps she transmitted soft pulses through his flesh to comfort him, to ease him into the reality of a journey back without her. There is probably a book or two forbidding such gentle manipulation, but if it got him out of there she'd look the other way. They were already starving; that should be penance enough.
“This?” Nestor pulled his arm away. “Here? With the lice-ridden patients? With …” he gestured at Hecuba―“that nasty old woman who thinks she's risen above the dirt that borne her?” He raised his chin. “When you could stop a war? When you could bring honor to your father's House? At the side of someone deserving your affection?”
It would be so easy. Just a tiny pull here, a gentle stretch there for his aorta to tear. A blood clot in his head would incapacitate him—and also possibly end the war. Partly it was her oaths, partly her conscience that stopped Hecuba from tearing him apart, but mostly it was a gentle nudge at the base of her neck. She glanced at Lasha, who had tried to blend in with the shadows between tapestries and walls. Was the poor child trying to comfort her? She might make a decent healer, after all, if her first instinct was to heal and not to dismember. Hecuba replied with a comforting wave of warmth in the girl's gut, mimicking the drowsiness after a good meal. And Lasha settled on the dusty floor, hid behind threadbare tapestries, the words of their ancient oath almost faded. Hecuba had long forgotten all, except for the last words: “do good or do not harm.”
But, oh, how she yearned to do harm now.
“Counselor.” Now Ismene's voice had a harder edge. “You've had your say. I'm staying.”
Hecuba found some comfort in Ismene's composure, in her steady hold. Almost, perhaps, too steady.
“Why?” Nestor wouldn't give up. “To starve, when you can lead? Supplies won't be coming. Those damned rebels have cut us off our farming domes.”
Hecuba cleared her throat. “Then we shall call our shortage a fast, and run with it.”
A clear tingle of mirth in Ismene's chest. And was that a chuckle behind them? No, that was Lasha in her tapestry, now busy healing her own hangnails and undoing her braids. Do I have a daughter now, too? How could she protect them all, her will chained by oaths that mattered less by the minute?
“The girl stays,” Hecuba declared. That much she could easily do. “For training. Or there will be inquiries regarding the origin of her implant and the butcher who performed the enhancement.”
“Inquiries? By whom? And for an orphan? We are at war!” He threw his hands in the air. “Keep her. She can starve here. More rations for my men who earn their stay.” He tilted his head sideways, his gaze seeking Ismene, his voice quivering with the facade of gentleness. “But you, my Lady …”
“Sir! Rebels!” The echo of weapons loading answered the soldier's warning as he stumbled panting into the hall. “Rebels! Rebels, here. In the infirmary. We got DNA matches with the evidence collected in the latest raid.”
Ismene met Nestor's gaze. “A fracture is a fracture. A wound is a wound. And you weren't given permission to invade our patients' privacy, Counselor.”
“Bring them,” he barked. “We're beyond rules and permissions now.”
“Don't,” Ismene protested, but the soldiers ignored her. She turned to Nestor, still composed, still dignity personified. “All Purple Halls are sanctuaries. Everyone knows that.”
Everyone decent, Hecuba wanted to blurt out, but she held her tongue. Shadows amassed around Ismene's feet, her purples frothing like old-fashioned gowns of a pre-war era. A hallucination or a crack? Was this rage, seeping through the facade of serenity? How hard was Ismene struggling to maintain her vitals this steady, so that even Hecuba wouldn't suspect the slaughter that slouched towards these halls? She licked her lips and gently poked Ismene's skin, to stir with her mind the same goosebumps that her fingertips sometimes did in moments of intimacy. A dagger of pain at the base of spine answered her, a loud “No!” that came not by sound but by nerves aflame.
Nestor—oblivious, close-to-being-gutted-alive Nestor—stood with his head lowered, his left hand a white-knuckled fist, his right still on his holstered gun. When he spoke, he kept his voice calm, his words slow and measured.
“Why? Why would you betray your House? That scum killed your family. Your father.”
Ismene grabbed a handful of her apron with the ghosts of too much blood woven into the purple, and held it out. “This is my House.” She pointed at Hecuba. “This is my family.” She gestured towards the infirmary. “Those are my kin. I'm not my father's keeper. I ended one war. My dues to House Hermokrates are paid in full. I'm done.”
“The rebels aren't done. If we don't deliver a strike―”
Hecuba grasped the chance to tiptoe sideways and shoo Lasha away. “Hide,” she whispered. “The fools with the guns have no quarrel with you. I'll make sure they remember this.” A deep sigh. “And reserve your strength. You might get your first lesson in healing earlier than most.”
Lasha nodded and scuttled further down the hall and slid behind another tapestry. The tingling at the back of Hecuba's mind to stop the soldiers before they shot―before Ismene stopped them―waxed stronger. But how could she keep everyone safe, soldiers and rebels and that lost little one, along with the light of her life?
Nestor's frown deepened. “Have you struck a deal with the rebels? Is your pantry filled with essentials stolen from New Thebes' children?”
Hecuba rolled her eyes. “Do we honestly look well-fed to you?”
Nestor spat on the ground and turned to Ismene. Before Hecuba could make him punch himself on the nose, his soldiers barged in, dragging the freshly amputated boy and an old man with an unfocused gaze.
“Have you lost your minds?” Hecuba took a step forward. She drew a sharp breath, struggling to collect scattered thoughts. “Kids! Amputees! Are these your rebels? Are these the enemy that makes you eat dirt?”
Her words fell to the dusty floor by Nestor's spit. He saw rebel colors where Hecuba saw a boy's leg lost to a land mine—a boy barely out of his teens. He saw the enemy in an old man whose kin had found him on the narrow strip of barren soil they called a farm, clutching his wife's lifeless body, his mind gone. A stroke, they'd said—they'd hoped, for their local sarcomancers could fix that. Hecuba had had no heart to send them away, to tell them they could only heal bodies. No implant yet made could mend broken souls.
Nestor unholstered his gun. Ismene protested, but he shoved her aside.
No. Not in my Hall.
Hecuba's brain alight and her heart racing, her neurons rallied to issue the command that would undo him. Then came a gentle brush against her face, falling leaves of early autumn around a creek of traveling souls. Soft murmurs just behind her ears―not the distant howls of the injured or dying, but whispers of gratitude for a quiet, effortless love.
Go, Ismene mouthed, and tilted her head sideways, towards the amputated boy who sat bleeding and whimpering. She stood absolutely still, her pulse not once quickening, with not one droplet of sweat on her forehead or down her spine. Still, serene, and Fury-eyed. Had a lock of hair escaped her braids to fall on her face, had a smudge of blood marred her left cheek, had her garments been dyed a darker shade of purple by blood and gore, she'd be exactly like the first day they'd met, back in New Argos. And Hecuba would have fallen in love all over again.
But the time of love and memories lay far behind them now. Hecuba hurried to the whimpering boy to control his bleeding. Behind her, Nestor barked at his soldiers to shoot and execute them both.
No shots. The soldiers—just kids themselves, really—mumbled about sanctuary, and perhaps it was a mistake, the old guy couldn't really be a threat, and shouldn't they be on their way back now, before nightfall? Bless them, Hecuba thought between weaving patches on arteries and synapses. And bless the parents who taught their children mercy.
“Shoot.” Nestor held his gun to the nearest soldier's temple.
The soldier, a dark-haired boy with pimples breaking through his thin beard, gulped. His lower lip slightly trembled as he squeezed the trigger. He missed. He missed time and time again, drilling new holes on the worn tapestries and chipping off the marble plaques. Either the aim of the New Theban forces was abysmal, or this generation of troops came with a conscience.
Or Ismene had taken care of it, while Hecuba dealt with the bleeding.
Nestor slapped his soldier. He shoved him aside, and raised his own gun. Hecuba crouched over the now silent boy—no tears, no whimpers, no blood. She cupped his cheek, sending soft pulses of comfort—don't fear, he won't shoot through me, he's not that far gone—and she wished she could believe her own words. A wave of warmth engulfed her—Lasha? A shroud of love and light—but still a shroud. Hecuba braced herself for the burning pain that never came. A glance over her shoulder and his aim had shifted to another target: the old man sitting where they'd left him, his eyes fixed on empty space, rocking his body back and forth.
“Please. Don't.” Ismene's voice, void of any emotion.
A scoff answered her. Nestor began to squeeze the trigger.
No gunshot. Only a plonk on the floor—metal against stone. Hecuba blinked. A molar flew overhead. Like a tiny comet of calcium phosphate and dentin, with a tail of blood that coagulated midair, the harbinger of carnage and death.
“Shut your eyes,” Hecuba whispered to the boy. He didn't have to witness the slaughter. He nodded and huddled by the old man, pulling him in his arms, as if to shield him. And now, the shroud of warmth expanded to shelter them all.
Hecuba forced her aching bones to support her and stand and her fluttering heart to turn around and face what she'd wished to never see again.
Nestor was on his knees. He held out his hand, palm open, as if offering his would-be-bride a token of commitment. No ring in his palm, only his eyeball. His jaw hung loose, his tongue and half of his teeth torn out. And his never-bride towered over him rigid, her pulse and breathing steady, his blood on her ever-calm face.
“I told you,” Ismene murmured, her fingertips brushing his still-intact cheek. “You should have listened.” She withdrew her hand and it balled into a fist mid-air.
His neck snapped. The empty husk that remained of Counselor Nestor of House Hermokrates crumbled to the floor not far from from where he'd spat his contempt.
Hecuba gulped down bile. Perhaps it was over. Perhaps this whole mess could still be contained. It had been Nestor who first drew a gun under the dome. Perhaps, with sufficient penance, Ismene could …
Ismene turned to face her, her lips curling first into a smile and then into a snarl. The facade of serenity crumbled, as she measured everything and everyone with the eyes of a Fury. Ismene, pale in robes dripping red, turned towards the soldiers cowering by the entrance. One of them fumbled with the control panel to open the security doors. Ismene took one slow, cautious step, then another, and another, and with each step, with each flick of her wrist or a tilt of her head another soldier crumbled to the floor, bodies spilling their insides, weaving a crimson carpet for Our Lady of Slaughter to tread. She no longer was the woman who'd ended a war but the one who'd start countless more until the world's breaking, her bloodlust insatiable, her neurons unbound.
A sob stuck in Hecuba's throat. A sob that grew bigger than her heart, than the entire dome. A sob overflowing with every tear of the years to come, once she'd done what she must. Mercy—perhaps misguided, and perhaps naive—had brought love into her life in New Argos. Was this love lost now? Or was it transforming into another kind of Love that reached beyond Hecuba's own needs and wants and another kind of Mercy to bring an end to pain?
But how could she sever her soul in half? And how could she not?
“My love …” Hecuba whispered.
Ismene stopped her death march, and glanced over her shoulder. Did she know? Did she see what came for her? Perhaps she didn't, for her mind raged aflame in countless white-hot centers. And perhaps she did, perhaps something of the healer survived inside the Fury, for her hands balled into fists and didn't rip Hecuba's eyes out. Did her shoulders slump a little? Did her brow crease? Did a drop of sweat drip down, just behind her ear?
Hecuba would wipe that sweat off, if she could. She'd take those hands in hers and gently uncurl the stiff fingers. She'd plant butterfly kisses on the brow and cradle the beloved head on her bosom. But she couldn't. Only one thing left to do at this late hour, at the dusk of everything she was and everything she knew and everything she loved.
Be the killswitch.
One nudge. One push. One little cut that severed the implant from its neurons, leaving them confused and bereft of guidance. Ismene dropped on her knees, her eyes now vacant, mouth agape, and fingertips tracing dusty cracks on the floor beneath the congealing blood.
Was it over? In the countless nightmares Hecuba had endured since New Argos, trying so hard to not wake Ismene, it had never been over. By the gods of all the stars, may this be a nightmare too!
Then came the howl. Which cursed soul birthed that sound, that horrid ululation that spawned from the gut, grappled its way upwards through chest and throat and released the agony of a spirit torn apart? Was … was that her howl? Were those her tears that clouded her vision, her knees that failed her? It had to be, for she found herself crawling towards her love who now sat cross-legged on the floor, while the surviving soldiers bolted out of the dome. She pulled Ismene into her arms, but Ismene wouldn't return the embrace, and her tears mingled with the blood and gore on her robes.
“I'll fix this,” she sobbed. “It will be all right,” she lied while seeking a way to mend the damage. Perhaps the torn synapses could be reconnected, perhaps she could kick-start the now foggy brain, perhaps … But the cut was clean and Ismene lost. Alone.
Hecuba brushed back a lock of Ismene's fiery hair. “I won't leave you alone. In all the dark places your mind now travels, I'll walk with you.”
Could she undo her own implant? There was a tingle of guilt, when the burden of her patients' welfare nudged the back of her thoughts, and she glanced over at the amputated boy and the old man. Others had made their way to the hall from the infirmary now. The amputee said something about a food transport—Had Nestor been right? Were they rebels indeed?
Hecuba traced the outline of her implant just beneath her skin. Would it hurt, if she dug it out with her own nails?
A tiny hand cupped Hecuba's own and gently lowered her prying fingers away from her temple. She looked up at Lasha. Are you all right, Hecuba wanted to ask the girl, but all words stuck in her throat.
“Are you … are you hurt? Can I help?" Lasha reached out and soft currents of warmth spread through Hecuba's body. Bless her soul, the girl tried to comfort her again. Without any training, she might end up harming her rather than helping her, but Hecuba was beyond caring by now.
A strange kind of warmth, that … Her throat remained sore, her feet remained weak, but she felt bathed in light. Hecuba looked up at Lasha and shut her eyes. She wasn't healing her body—Hecuba could feel as much. What was she healing? Mind, soul, or spirit? Or perhaps bonds severed and undone, bonds between neurons and their implants, between people of two bodies and one soul?
What had that clumsily installed implant touched upon? Hecuba suspected that there was no name yet for what Lasha was—for what she could do and what she could grow to be. But Hecuba knew, without a doubt, that they'd come for her. Some would come wielding rules, and some would come wielding guns. Hecuba glanced up, at the young face wrinkled with concern. She took Lasha's hand into hers.
“Let them come,” Hecuba said.
In the crook of her neck, Ismene sniffled. “Love?”
One word from her lips, and Hecuba's world shifted towards dawn.
Let them come.