(This writing has been translated for English readers from the Eskan dialect L'hinee. These translations are as accurate to the source text as possible. Some words maintain their spelling due to the lack of a concrete translation.)
I'm not a fan of the grass. It stains everything as purple as the veins in its flesh. Had I the choice, I would leave it all behind, go live in a place with walkways through the violet sea and buildings that reach toward the stars. My life could be different in a city. Stories of the twisting spires of Kjeljimeryashimatotenyu, the glimmering towers of moving light in Aeon, the comfortable sprawl of Beljensik, the upside-down structures in Pelepno; they fascinate me. Ma tells me these tales of people with red skin, taller than a tree; women all the colors of light, leaping through the canopy of the Midland jungles as if they were born up there.
But I cannot leave her behind. She took me under her wing. It cost her everything she ever could have hope to possess, and robbed from her the life she was most comfortable living. I watch her now as she tills the field, staining her garments with the blood of the grass below her feet. She works too hard, as always. Ma never likes to remember her limits. Her light yellow skin, the unnatural hue reminiscent of the color of the substance that took everything she ever had, is drenched in her sweat as she continues to push herself. I should be working in her place- I am strong, I am well. She taught me so much, but I never get the chance to show her how well I've learned.
Why does she sacrifice so much for me? All this time, it seems like a waste. Although, I suppose she hasn't anything better to do. I put down my devices and return to the fields. It is time for me to take over from her.
I call to her. Her hearing is ineffective sometimes, but it is no excuse for her. I know she can hear me when I shout. She turns at the sound of my voice. Her breath has fogged her respirator, and her sickly yellow eyes have trouble locating me from the distance we stand.
"Yaee? Amara-ka. I can see you, ha!"
She makes her way to me slowly, leaning on her soul-weapon: a scythe of great length, now reduced from a weapon of battle to simple farm tool. It serves as a reminder to me what she was before the day we met. I scold her for her disregard of her own well-being.
"Ma, you have worked the field for enough time today. You look as if you've slit the throat of a beast with blood the color of wine. Come home; I will continue your work."
"Pa-enda. Hahaaaaah! I am well, child mine. But, if you are finished with your tasks, you may help, yaee?"
I sigh deeply. She will kill herself one of these days, I think. She hands me a smaller scythe from her waist and we set to work.
. . .
Our harvest is surprisingly good this time of year. I am not as efficient as Ma, her scythe gliding through the scall while mine drags behind due to my poor edge alignment. I can't believe that she seems happy with this life, and I sense that she knows I dislike it. I'm not ungrateful- we are here in a land of plenty. But maybe I want less.
The cart floats only a small bit off the ground now, its thruster mechanisms emanating a quiet hum of stress, loaded to the brim with our scall harvest. Much of this will go to town, and the rest we'll use to make our own bread stuffs. Ma lightly shoves it under the shade structure next to the house, and it comes to rest in the shade. We work together to cover it with the large tarp to keep it from getting wet, should any rain fall tonight. Ma turns it off and it drifts slowly to the floor, like a leaf on a dying wind. As I usher her inside, I look up at the gray-blue clouds. No wind. This is never a good sign; a storm brews.
Ma is seated at the table already, a circle of orange-white-marbled wood. It is no wonder as to why- her bones, weakened as they have been, can't hold her up like they used to. A shame to waste all of that on me. She catches my eyes with hers, and I turn quickly away. Maybe she won't say anything about it. Maybe she will. It's hard to tell at times whether or not she'll speak to it.
I wag my finger to the right. No.
"Ga. You never cease to amaze. You have strife in you, but you don't wish to confide in me. I am here for you, am I not?
I still say nothing.
"How can the table be more interesting than me? Why do you look away when I speak to you? It happens more and more." She pauses. I take a peek and see her herself looking at the table. The bastard is going to make me feel guilty.
She continues. "Is it something I said to you? Something I've done? I... I want to know. Please." She looks back at the table. "Am I not..."
I can't take it anymore. "Just stop. I have nothing to say. I'm not going to let you probe into my head like this. It's none of your BUSINESS!"
I see her topple in her chair and look down at mine. Scatheburn spots have appeared on the armrests under my hands. I know I get like this sometimes. I can't help it... but never have I been this way in front of Ma. No. No, no, no, no!
I flip my chair as I storm out of the front room and up the stairs. I look down at the handrail, only to discover I've burned that, too. Tsk. The only thing I don't understand is my tears. Why am I crying? For whom? Myself? Her? There isn't much anyone I have left to cry over or for. I slam my bedroom door behind me and lock it, but I go no further. I'm not able to. I collapse in front of my door and feel the hot sulfurous water drip all over my face, my clothes, my floor. I'm sobbing. WHY? The little doll on my windowsill watches me silently. If only it was alive as I believed it was when I was younger. My heart hurts in my chest, like it's going to burst. I can't stop. She can't ever see me like this.
. . .
I don't know how long I've been sitting here. Too long. Not long enough. I can't tell. I hear a rap on the door behind me- faint, but clearly intentional.
"Amara? Toush-ka? Please... I want to talk."
I don't move. She doesn't own me. She can't make me do anything. She's not...
"Amara...?" I hear her try to open the door... wait. No. She's leaning against it and... sitting down. "I just want to know what's wrong. I care about you, really, I do. I'm not going to leave you behind. Never have and never will. I just wanted you to know that."
I just wish she would stop. Go away. Why does she care about me so much? SHE'S NOT MY...
"I know I can be harsh on you sometimes. I do it so you will be strong. Stronger than me. Stronger than I was."
I stand up and open the door. I'm crying again. It can't be helped. The handle on the door is half melted in my hand. Ma tips over into the open doorway, unable to keep her balance from leaning back into what was just seconds ago a solid surface. She looks up at me from the floor, looking curious. That look alights my anger.
"You're always doing all of these things for me. What if I wanted to do them myself? What if I can do all of this by myself!? Why do you care so much about me anyway?"
She looks puzzled, which inflames my temper even more."I don't understand..."
"That's right. You don't. You go out there every day, toil and break yourself, and for what? For me? Why am I so important to you? What makes you think that I'm even worth all of this!?" My feet have begun to heat up, a purple light emanating from deep within my bone structure, shining straight through my skin. "Have you even stopped to consider that I hate it here? I HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS PLACE!"
Finally, I'm getting a reaction. Her face flushes a light red and her veins begin to show more than usual. "We built this house with our own hands. We did all of this together. Do you forget so easily?"
"I DIDN'T FORGET THAT! IN FACT, THAT MIGHT BE WHY I HATE IT SO MUCH!"
"AMARA, YOU BEST NOT..."
"NOT WHAT? HUH? NOT WHAT!?"
"I DO ALL OF THIS FOR YOU, YOUNG ONE! AM I YET THE ONE TO BLAME? I SACRIFICE FOR YOU!"
"OH, GIVE IT UP! YOU DON'T CARE ABOUT ME. YOU AREN'T EVEN MY REAL MOTHER!
She's silent now. The house just became so still. I've stopped crying, my hands and feet no longer hot. Her eyes are wide. She's just standing stock still, like a statue. A lone tear falls from her left eye, sliding down her respirator as her flagella begin to droop. She suddenly looks... tired. More tired than I've ever seen her look. I'm tired of looking at her pitiful expression. I run down the stairs and out the door into the pouring acidic rain. I can't tell if the downpour is burning my cheeks, or if it's my damned tears again. Gods, what have I done?
. . .
The tree keeps me from the stinging rain and strong winds as I realize the burning upon my cheeks is my own tears. I hate her; no, I love her too much... I need to focus. But I just can't. I can't hold back anymore. I don't care if my tears burn a hole in the grass. I'm so confused. I want closure.
It's dark now, and I don't think I can stay awake. So tired. So unbelievably exhausted...
. . .
I open my eyes to see a small row of buildings in the middle of a field of blue grass- not the wine-colored tone I'm so used to. I feel... shorter. Squishier. I turn and see a woman, harvesting from a field of small, ball-shaped plants. A book is open at my feet, it's pages smudged by little fingerprints covered in dirt.
A male voice. I look up from my devices. The man looks like... well, he looks like me. Same Eastern face and tawny skin. I can't resist running to meet him.
My voice is several octaves higher than normal. This is most certainly a dream... wait. I just called this man my... father?
"You've been waiting here all day, young one. Here when I left, here when I return!"
"I wanna go to Toma's!"
"All day, waiting for that. Well, we wait no longer. Come on, I don't see any chores right now, so lets get going before Ma sees us and gives me something to do!" He smiles warmly and lifts me up, setting me on his shoulders. He runs surprisingly quickly, arriving in the town in no time at all. We pass a storefront full of meats, in many different shapes and sizes; a soulforgery, its sign framed by hammered metal; a tanner, selling his wares in front of his dwelling, and working on new products in plain sight. We stop in front of a plain-looking building, its sign worn by age. As we walk inside, a bell rings from the door and a stocky-looking man springs up behind the counter to the far wall.
"Amaron! How blows the wind today?"
"Fair. And how, Gods willing, are you, you old pa-enda?"
"Heh! The woman's out looking for odds and ends. Trinkets, goods, you name it. She says we're running low on stock. I says there's no-one here anyway and she shouldn't work herself too hard."
"You're just stubborn. Why would a woman want someone so much like herself?"
"Well, I don't know about you, friend, but I'm glad she did!"
They laughed for a short while, then the man behind the counter turned his attention to me.
"Well, isn't it the little troublemaker? Come back for another curio?"
I can't contain my excitement. What is wrong with me here?
"Yeaa! What is it this time? I want an ax!"
"Nothing like that yet, but I'm sure the lady will find one next time. Until then, though, she found something special for you this time around."
He roots around under the counter for a moment, swearing to himself occasionally, until he pulls out something... familiar. A little red doll, barely big enough to fit in his palm. The doll I have on my windowsill. It's not a doll one plays with- it's a doll to keep one safe. This isn't a dream. It's a memory. I know what happens next. I don't want to watch it. Please, brain, don't make me live this again.
"Everyone! GAS!" The woman that was in the field before runs through the center of town, toward me and who I now know is my father as we rush outside to see for ourselves the cloud of disgusting green-yellow smoke descend upon what used to be my house at the edge of town.
"Gadja! Where are the masks? We can't outrun that!"
My real mother looks down at me, fear in her eyes. Fear of her imminent death. "I only had time to grab one," she says. Father looks down at me, the same look in his eye. "This will only fit you," she continues, sobbing. I see her skin had already changed from a light greenish hue to an ugly light brown, like a dying leaf from a green tree.
"You..." Father struggles to speak.
She begins to cough. The gas had already poisoned her. I never remembered how she died. Now I know. It doesn't matter- I still wept. Father picks me up in his arms, ready to sprint away.
"Get her as far as you can. I love you..." Mother chokes on her words. No more would come from her. Father doesn't hesitate. He runs.
But not fast enough. Within seconds, the mist of death seizes the town from all sides. The pandemonium begins to thin as quickly as it started, people without masks collapsing in the street, and those with them already having run into the murky depths of the thick puke-colored gas.
Father stops running, and I look to see a tendril of greenish fog decided to block this path. I hear sickening popping sounds in the mist. I can't help but relive what happens next. My father takes a look at me and smiles.
"You'll make it. I believe in you. Your mother believes in you. And we love you." He tightens my mask to my face and closes his eyes, bracing for his demise.
How can I forget what happens next? We are suddenly engulfed in the mist. The last image I have of my father is a writhing mass on the ground. His eyes roll back and begin to swell. The grisly popping is not creatures within the mist. They were the eyes of the victims, exploding in their sockets. As happened to Father. So, I screamed. In a mask, my tears have one place to go- into the filters. They are designed this way. It makes all the breaths I take start to burn. I run in the opposite direction; I love them, but I wasn't stupid. I make it to the edge of the town before I trip on a body, lying haphazardly in the center of the road. There are times in life when the world slows down after you've done something dangerous and the universe is about to punish you for your clumsiness. This is that time. I smash my mask against... something, I can't see... and quickly cover the hole up using my bundled-up shirt.
I'm wailing uncontrollably. I can't think straight anymore. My vision is blocked by my shirt, and my ankle isn't moving the way I want it to. I lay there, my leg shooting with pain, my face burning with drying tears, panicking, but unable to do anything. I can't even crawl. I've got to hold this shirt to my face or I'm dead. I see small blotches of red on my shirt, which I quickly realize is blood from my father's eye sockets. I continue to wail. Gods, I feel so pathetic.
. . .
I've lost my voice. Who knows how long I've been sitting here. Why has the memory not ended? I just want to wake up. WAKE UP! Nothing is working. Maybe this isn't a memory. Maybe this is my life right here, right now. I want... someone. Something. Anything. I can't see anything through the folds of my shirt. Breathing is becoming difficult- my filter is deteriorating. I haven't got much longer.
I hear something in the distance; a loud, low rumble. It sounds like an engine of some kind. I clutch my little guardian doll closer to my breast. I can feel myself starting to loosen my hold on the shirt. My arms are so tired...
Voices. I hear voices. All female. I have no voice. Call to them, say something! I manage barely a whisper. "Help..." I wheeze, feeling the coldness of the deadly mist that surrounds me start bearing down upon my body like so many needles as it finally begins to seep into my skin.
"Helllp..." A little louder this time. I hear one set of footsteps stop. She- I think it's a she- is close. "Heeelllp me..." this time louder yet. The footsteps begin again, heading in my direction. I use what little energy I have left to kick my free leg into the air. Please see me. The footsteps speed up and I see a faint shadow cross the thick fabric of my shirt as the stop right next to me.
"Gods... HERE!" she- it is a she, I'm sure now- shouts. More footfalls close by, growing closer until they too stop at my side.
"Syet, don't pick her up! Look. She hasn't got much of a mask left." I don't remember this voice. Or the first.
The last set of footsteps reaches us. Then I hear her speak. This voice I know. It's not as hoarse as I know it so well.
"Dire. All inhabitants terminated. Baru will be back any time now to set up their forward base. But... we have one exception."
I see a dark shadow, a familiar silhouette, cross my improvised mask.
"By the Clock. She's probably been here since the attack. Youngling? D'you hear me?"
I cannot speak. I want to so badly. But I can cry. I sob quietly into my shirt.
"Shit. Display on her filter says the thing is blown." The shadow disappears. "Any ideas, crew?"
"She may have information."
"That may be true, but I came here to help, dammit. I don't care if she's a scholar or a sack of farm tools, I'm not letting her die. Spread out, ladies! Find a spare respirator. May be one in the houses. Well? What the fuck are we standing around for? GET GOING!"
I see her silhouette again as she leans over my body. "Ah, fuck." I can start to feel my skin hurt ever more, as the gas continues to seep into my naked skin unprotected by the shirt. I feel faint- I'm not getting enough real air. My filter is finally blown. I can't breath and I wheeze what are supposed to be my final breaths.
I hear her again as another heavier set of steps approaches. I see... no... I don't see anything. It's too bright. I can't hold down the shirt anymore. This is it.
I hear her muffled voice. "No, no, no!" I feel the soft mask leave my face as a hand is shoved over my mouth. A heavy object is placed over my head...
I gasp loudly. I can breath. My hands are free. My sight is restored. The blinding light fades to reveal...
Ma. I forgot how great she looked. I would see her in holopictures around the house, but it was nothing like seeing her face to face. Her skin was a bright white, like snow, but she had the face of a Westerner- tall, but with round cheeks and small, marble-like eyes and thick brows. I'd seen them before, their caravans creeping across the plains of my home, laden with exotic wares, baubles, and trinkets. She smiled. "That's better, isn't it, ka?" she cooed. I see her face turning the same sickly yellow she was- is- but... she still smiles at me as her flagella droop and shrivel and her eyes water like rain clouds ready to burst upon the land. I can't stop the flow of tears from my eyes as I watch her die. For me. Unlike my father, she crumples gracefully, like a thin slice of wood burning over an open flame, right into my chest. I lift her from me and hug her tightly, bawling. I'm such a crybaby male. I don't care.
I feel her weight being lifted from me, and I open my eyes to see a short man, not much taller than my father, lifting her out of my arms. I don't have the strength to fight him. He wears robes of white, an etched exoskeleton adorning his thin arms as they reach within the depths of his cloak to reveal another mask. His own is a work of art in itself, with a small tusk-like protrusion in the forehead region and four symmetrical straight horns topped with small spirals at the ends. He looks like a God.
Ma starts to cough and sputter within the new mask, blood spattering the glass portion where her face is located. He turns, but before doing so, grabs my hand and looks down at me. "Safety awaits," he whispers as a ship adorned with a medicine symbol one finds on the emergency packet one finds in a compartment close to the bed.
"MEDA!" I hear the voice called Syet call out from afar. "...[Admiral] Skedrow!" I see an enforcer from around the man, a tall woman with a blue speckled breastplate. I hear the others before I see them through the thick gas. I see another one with a red helmet and purple antennae, one with a dark green suit, and the last with an orange piece of cloth hanging from her thigh. They all salute, right fist to left breast.
"At ease. Your [officer] will be fine. So will the kid. You've all done good work today."
"Sir, what about the approaching Baru...?"
The man chuckles lightly. "Where?"
"Sir, to the-" She cuts herself off. "I understand, sir."
"As of right now, Syet, you've been promoted. Don't let it go to your head."
She turns back to the enforcers as we board the ship, hand in hand. I then realized that he'd put Ma's hand in mine instead of his own.
. . .
I wake up ever so slowly. The clouds have dispersed, for the most part- I see a few showers in the distance, but the storm had passed overhead. My face is dry and caked with hardened curds of sulfur, which I quickly wipe away. I don't know if I have more tears left to cry today, but something inside me tells that I might have some left. It's fine now.
I walk slowly home. I didn't run far; only up the hill at the end of the estate, which I'd say is a decent run for anyone. I could still see my house when I started not so long ago- a tiny speck surrounded by purple grass. No matter what my memory tells me, it can't get me to like the pesky ground plants full of staining agents so potent they can ruin even the ugliest of leg-wear.
I look at everything around me as I walk. The ledumno in the trees to my left buzz their usual tune- one high note and one low note, alternating over and over, just as they do after every rain. Baji frolic in the grass in front of me, their red pelts stained by the living bed beneath which they tussle, only to leap out of the path when I stray close. The scall on my right shifts in the breeze, whistling its own symphony to itself. I hear from Ma that it's how they communicate. I don't believe her all the time, but now, I can hear them singing with every breath of wind that flows through them, music that only I can hear.
As I reach the door, I hesitate. Will she hate me for the things I've said? Will she scold me? Has she locked the door, and gone looking for me? I push the thoughts aside. I am strong. Confronting my feelings will give me what I desire most. What do I want? I don't know, but this is the path I must walk to get it. I open the door and step inside.
Everything is as I left it; the chair still turned over in the corner and the other pushed out away from the table, my stylus and holopad upon the desk in the other corner in front of the window, the scatheburn all over the floor from my stomping upstairs. I shut the door and continue up the stairs. I glance back to see her boots drenched in mud next to the door, knocked over from her removing them quickly. So she did leave the house to look for me. But she must be back now. Right? I walk up the stairs, running my hand along the burnt rail and walls. I caused so much damage. It's never been this bad.
Her door is open, as usual, but she isn't there. I hear her respirator whirring and clicking, her labored breathing coming from... my room. I walk in on her, head between her folded arms and bent legs at the end of my bed, facing the headboard. On my pillows are all the pictures- holo and non-holo- she has of me. In her left hand is my guardian doll.
I feel the waterworks starting up again. Looks like I have tears within me yet. It's clear to me that she's been crying, maybe worse than me. Bunches of used tissue wood rest all around the bed, all covered with the yellowy hue of dried sulfur water. She heaves once, letting out a wet sob, then letting her respirator compensate by venting it out the side. She doesn't have her shirt on, exposing the metal plates and small tubes that lay in place of her left breast, her right breast naturally shaking as she lets out a whimper of pain from the machine's actions within her body. It hurts her to cry this hard.
She slowly lifts her head as her eyes rise to meet mine. They're more bloodshot that yellow now, at least. Her flagella betray her mood, flopping over her face. Despite the tissues, her face is still caked in the same sulfur curds that I dealt with not too long ago. I can still see the beautiful face that she once had, now marred by that ugly metal thing attached to her mouth and nose. I did this to her. I gulp back another wave of emotion as my eyes hold back the floodgates.
After what seems like forever, she speaks. That lovely Western drawl mixed in with a dark, smooth sounding tone was now a quiet mockery of what I remembered it to be. Gods, I'm such a horrible person.
"A... Amara. I..."
"Don't apologize. I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm selfish, foolish, every other ish under the stars. I'm ungrateful for what you gave me and what you still give to me, and I'm so sorr-"
She didn't give me a chance to finish. She was already upon me, wrapping me in her arms. And with that, we both drench each other's shoulders with all the emotion we'd been holding from each other for so long. I felt the combination of her cold metal breast and her warm skin upon my own- the duality of my Ma. Something that she has passed down to me, clearly.
Through her sobs, she speaks continuously. "This is not your fault. It never was. I made the choice to keep you. You are not of my blood, but Soga damn my soul to the eternal darkness if you are not my daughter."
I've dried up my tears, resorting to dry heaving the rest of my emotions. I'm just happy to be home with the one person that cares about me more than I care about myself.
. . .
The scall bread has never tasted as good as it does tonight. We have nothing to put in it, so we bear with the blank loaves. I let my flagella clean my cheeks some more as I take another bite. I'm still holding Ma's hand, massaging every finger, rubbing her smooth palm, locking my hand in hers, then unlocking and beginning the process anew. We both stare at the table silently, the only sounds at the table coming from my mouth and her artificial lungs. Everything that must be said, has been said. I take yet another mouthful of the perfectly moist loaf. I rip off a piece of mine and hand it to Ma. She slowly takes her mask off, exposing her lower face. I rarely see her whole face, but the sight makes me... happy. She is smiling warmly as she raises the piece to her lips, eyes half closed and no longer as red as before.
Before she can eat it, however, I knock sounds from the door. Funny. People don't usually drop by at dusk. She puts her mask back on and rises from her chair, stumbling over her muddy boots to reach the door. She fiddles with the lock a bit, keeping her right hand on her thigh- the place her soul-weapon is stored when not in use. The door opens leisurely as Ma takes a quick peek outside. Her expression changes from one of curiosity to one of surprise.
"Ah... AH!" She swings the door open the rest of the way, revealing a towering woman dressed in white enforcer armor... and a blue speckled breastplate. "Syet!" Ma squeals as she pounces on the partial-stranger, engulfing her in a seemingly overpowering embrace. All this time, and Ma still has this much attachment to her. I'm speechless.
Syet wraps her own arms around Ma. "Meda! Pa-enda!" Her laughter is dark and rich, like a cascade of [chocolate]. She puts Ma down, surveying the room she's been dragged into and removing her helmet.
This is the first time I've seen Syet's face. She's a... Southerner? Such a strange thing- I heard stories that they normally stick to their stretch of little islands in their local region. Her skin is the color of oil, shiny and black; her eyes, a deep orange tone; her flagella, held back in a knot. Her face is rounder than Ma's, but not much different in thickness of the brow or shape of the jaw. Her teeth are a strange blue color, but they seem clean. Her expression is that of joy.
This expression doesn't last long after she puts Ma down. Another woman walks in behind her, wearing a dark flowing robe and wearing a mask. It looks as if it's made of a bunch of knots, tied tight over a sphere. She does not remove it upon entry. Two other enforcers follow in her footsteps, tracking mud on the floor. Ma's floor. My floor. Instinct tells me to be wary of them. They are not guests, but intruders.
Ma sees the masked woman and salutes as best a sick woman can. She addresses her as Shiri.
The woman seems unamused. "That is [Admiral] Shiri to you. Please, sit." She motions to our table. "I don't mean to intrude upon dinner."
Ma looks at Syet, her eyes betraying her puzzlement. Syet looks... uncomfortable? No. Syet looks sorry. She motions for Ma to sit, doubling down on this "Shiri's" orders.
Ma looks at me and sits down. I mirror her confusion. I don't have any idea what's happening. This doesn't feel like an old friend visiting to say hello- this feels like someone invading our home and preparing to ransack it right in front of us. I don't like this Shiri- she feels off.
Looking around the table at the menacing figures standing over us, Ma speaks up. "What is the meaning of this? I know of you, Shiri- you want something from us. Out with it- what is it that I have which you desire?"
I cannot see through the mask, but her voice sounds as if she's smiling like a fanged demon, ready to bleed her victims dry with a single bite. "Oh, I don't want anything of yours. Well... hm. That's not exactly true. I have these documents..." She pulls up a set of holopad screens, each covered in a wall of text- "...that detail a deed of property out in the middle of nowhere... I mean, privately-owned AUMO property, bought and ceded to a Voak Skedrow."
Ma sighs. "Yes. He bought this land. But I have my documents in order as well. This land is owned by me..."
Shiri cuts her off; "Oh, I wasn't actually here to talk about that. I'm just teasing." Gods, if I didn't despise her as soon as she walked in the door, I certainly do now. I can feel my hands beginning to heat up again. "But I am here to talk about you."
Ma looks shocked. "Me? What about me?"
I imagine that same toothy smile as Shiri continues. "You see, your employment to the AUMO through the 101st fleet was terminated a stretch ago, but nothing in your file tells me why you were terminated. No conditions, no recommendations. Squad-issue field reports are no longer applicable as sources of evidence for debilitating injuries or illnesses, so those accounts have all been scrapped. What am I left with?" She pauses, like she's trying to let it sink in. "I'll tell you, since it looks like no one here wants to speak up. I'm left with documents that point to a desertion from our ranks before the service limit has been reached. Do you see what I'm getting at, [captain] Meda?"
Ma sits straight up in her seat, eyes wide. "What are you implying?"
"I'm implying that you must finish your term of service outlined on your contract. Unless, of course, you want to face the punishment for desertion, which I will gladly serve you. You already know what the punishment is."
The blood drains from my face. Does she not see that Ma can barely breath, let alone fight? Let alone serve? This can't happen. She's not ready. Not anymore.
She calmly responds. "I am feeble. Do you not see? I cannot swing a blade. These arms cannot propel a sharp edge through flesh, nor can they handle the shock of a firearm going off in them. I am unable. And I am sorry- but I must refuse."
Shiri lets out a sigh of disappointment. "I am feeling generous right now, Meda. I won't be harsh on you- I see you have your reasons for leaving. But, since you are outside the law, and have been all this time, I have no choice but to evict you from this property, as that would make this an illegally acquired asset."
"I can't win either way."
"You solved the case, detective! You lose every time."
Ma looks up from her lap. "What of my daughter?"
"What of her? She looks old enough to go off on her own. Yet she spends her time here, leeching off of you. That will change, whichever way this goes."
Scatheburn develops on the table under my hands. I want to strangle her where she stands. Ma sees this and puts her hand on my shoulder, giving her finger a quick wag to the right under the table. No. She gets up.
"If I go with you, will you leave my daughter alone? She is not outside the law. She can own this property through legal means. She will fend for herself." She turns to me, tears in her eyes for the third time today. "I believe in her."
Shiri chuckles, sending chills up and down my spine and extinguishing the heat within my core. "How touching. I suppose she could. You have the documentation, as do I. Her signature will suffice as a legal transfer of properties."
"Perfect." She pulls me out of my seat and into the side room. I'm scared.
"Ma? Why is this happening? Who is she? Why is she doing this to us?"
She sighs. "I don't know. But I do know that you will be safe here. Do not sign her document, toush-ka; sign mine. Just to make sure she isn't playing you for a fool." She holds my hand tight in between hers. "I'm going to leave with her."
"You can't!" I whisper loudly. "I can't let you! There has to be something else, another way..."
She pauses. "There may be another way yet."
We walk back into the front room and retake our seats. Ma turns to Shiri and speaks. "I wish to speak with Voak Skedrow himself. You are [Admiral] now, which means he has climbed ranks yet again. All this time you have spent out of system, I would expect he would reap the reward from. Where is he now?"
Syet and the enforcers suddenly seem less threatening. One enforcer hangs his head, while the other scratches the back of his. Syet sighs and kicks at the floor. Even Shiri seems less daunting. It didn't feel any better- it felt as if the worst was yet to come.
"Due to unfortunate circumstances, Voak Skedrow is no longer with us," says Shiri.
Ma's hands go to her respirator and she shuts her eyes tight. And I now know who she's talking about. The man in the robes with the 4 horned helmet. The man who saved Ma. Oh no.
In a flash, I snatch Ma's holopad and sign the documents on the screen. Shiri looks at me with what I would love to assume is surprise. After all, it's the same expression present on Syet and the enforcer's faces. Shiri crosses her right leg over her left and sits down on an unseen object. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if she was sitting on thin air.
"It looks as if your daughter has alrea..."
I cut her off with relish. "As a legal citizen under AUMO law..." I grab mother's hand and place her hand on the holopad screen. "...I cede this property to Meda Takesh."
Shiri laughs out loud. I imagine this would sound pleasant to anyone unfamiliar with the monster I see before me. "She is still outside the law, you fool. You have done nothing!"
"Not yet." I take a deep breath. This is it. It's time to return the favor, Ma. You saved my life. It's time to save yours. "I offer myself up as compensation. I will serve the remainder of my mother's term of service. In return, my mother receives clemency from all her charges and maintains a legal status as a citizen under the AUMO."
"NO!" Ma cries, jumping from her chair to grab my shoulder. I snatch her hand from the air and look her dead in the eye. Ma. I am strong enough. I'm not going to let you die for nothing, over nothing. I see more tears build up in her eyes. I can only imagine the grimace of pain I'm bringing upon her lips as she collapses in front of me and puts her head in my lap and begins to wail.
The hole in the left of Shiri's mask begins to glow a verdant green. "This just got a whole lot more interesting."
Syet has cupped her hands over her mouth, mimicking Ma's expression from earlier.
I reach my hand across the table. "Do we have a deal?"
Shiri looks down at my hand, then up at me. "A young woman such as yourself, willing to throw your life away so quickly for the ones she loves. Touching."
"I SAID, 'DO WE HAVE A DEAL?'"
She tilts back in her invisible seat, surveying my hand. The room is still for what feels like forever. She then leans forward again as her mask unravels itself to reveal her face- a pristine Northerner. I should have known.
"I do believe so, young Amara Takesh. I do believe so."
Ma wails louder as Syet, herself tearful, pulls her off of my lap. Shiri stands- revealing that she was in fact sitting on a stool of unknown origin- to hold open the door for me and the enforcers as they lead me out to the middle vehicle in a procession heading West, toward the big cities. This isn't how I wanted to end up visiting them. One of the enforcers takes his hand off of my arm and I see my chance. I break from the other one's grasp and run... back toward Ma. She is next to Syet, still weeping, unable to see through her tears as I press her to me one last time. I shed just one tear as I hold onto her for what seems to me to be the longest hug I've ever given her. This might be the last. She wraps her arms around me and squeezes tight.
"I can't let you go, either."
"Ma. You've done all of this for me. I'm returning the favor..."
"I won't let go."
"You have to."
After several minutes, she utters the last words I'm going to hear her say for a long time.
"I love you. So, so much."
"I love you, Ma. We aren't family in blood, but Soga damn me to the eternal darkness if you aren't my mother."
And I let go. I turn to see Shiri already waiting for me at the vehicle, door wide open, her mouth twisted into a malicious smile as my one and only mother begins to bawl again behind me.
. . .
Syet stayed behind with Ma. I sit in the back of the strange transporter, looking out the tinted-black windows as the country I once knew swishes by me, like it decided to get up and move without me. Of course, I know I am the one moving. I am to be shipped out-of-system as early as tomorrow. I have only one belonging to my name. I just hope that my guardian doll can pass through spaceport scanners.
Scall: A type of reed. Ausran. Has many seed pods on its long stalks, which are harvested, dehydrated, and ground into a flour-like substance to make bread. Central to many Ausran's lifestyle, especially in the farmlands in the East. Seed pods are shaped like small tubes, with the reed having the right texture to be perfectly acoustic. Translates roughly in English to "singing grass."
Scatheburn (Scathbrun): A hux ability. Those with this ability allow the energy within their bodies to travel faster and faster, thus creating unprecedented heat within them. They are subsequently highly resistant to heat.
Holopad/holopicture: Holographic imaging devices. Powered by solar energy most commonly, but may also be powered by batteries. Battery life is 10-12 Terran years.
Soul-weapon (Abonda): A weapon bound to its wielder through unknown means. The secrets of their craft are left to the few that still forge them. They are never sheathed, instead dissolving and dispersing into a tattoo representation of its true form when stowed.
Ma/Da: Informal. Mother/Father, but can also be used for guardians or caregivers. For instance, an elderly Ausran suffering from old battle wounds too egregious to be healed will call their dedicated caregiver Ma or Da depending on the sex of the caregiver.
Pa-enda: Expletive. The closest translation in English is "little shithead." Like all expletives in the Eskan lexicon, this can be used in a demeaning way or an endearing one.
Toush-ka: Term of endearment. Closest translation in English is "little sweet you."
Ka: Pronoun. Closest translation in English is "you."
Baru: Short for Baru-tus, another alien race. Aggressive and militaristic, to be avoided at all costs. Have been launching small excursions into Auser for a long time, using slash and burn techniques, using chemical weapons and bombs to drive away adversaries and occupy the lands left behind.
Ledumno: Insects roughly the size of a Terran domestic canine. Friendly despite gruesome appearance, considered an easy-to-take-care-of household pet. Looks similar to a member of the Terran species Forficula auricularia
Baji: Long, furry mammals, shaped like tubes with large rectangle-shaped ears. Skittish and infamously dumb.