That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.
Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.
Once her vision settled, she could make it out.
There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.
It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.
Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.
Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.
It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.
Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.
When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.
With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.
First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.
“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”
His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.
She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.
Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.
Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.
It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.
“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.
That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.
“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”
Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.
Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.
For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.
Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?
“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.
Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–
Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.
She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.
“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”
No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?
With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.
It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.
Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.
“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”
Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.
Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.
Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.
Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.
Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.
“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”
She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.
Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.
She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.
That could very well be her soon–
In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.
Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.
Another black heart from Imani. No other text.
“This woman–! Ugh–!”
While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.
All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.
Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…
Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.
“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”
While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?
Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–
“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”
Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.
On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.
And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.
From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.
Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.
There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.
Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.
No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.
So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.
On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.
She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?
From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.
There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.
Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.
“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”
As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.
“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”
When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–
–how long their tongue was,
and forked. And how–
how sharp their teeth were–
“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”
Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.
Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–
“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.
Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.
For this person not to do so was pretty strange.
“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”
Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.
“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”
At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.
This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.
There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.
But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.
They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.
“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.
Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.
“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.
Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.
She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.
Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.
Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?
“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.
Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.
“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”
She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.
Homa had enough of this.
“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”
They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.
“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”
They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.
“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.
Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”
The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.
“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”
“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”
Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.
Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.
All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?
When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.
“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”
Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.
“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.
As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.
“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”
Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.
“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”
For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?
She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.
Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.
So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.
From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.
The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.
He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.
Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.
Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?
Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.
She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.
Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.
“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”
Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.
Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.
Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.
Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.
It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.
For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.
Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.
Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.
When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.
There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.
Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.
When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.
The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.
Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.
This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.
Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.
“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.
Homa looked around the room.
Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.
She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.
Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.
Homa picked up.
“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.
“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”
Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”
From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.
When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–
That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–
Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.
She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.
Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.
She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.
“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.
“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.
Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”
Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.
She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.
After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.
While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.
Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.
Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”
“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.
And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.
“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”
That question came as a shock, for no good reason.
Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–
“Um, yeah, about that–“
“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.
“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“
“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.
“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.
Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“
“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.
“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“
Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?
It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!
“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“
“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”
Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.
She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.
“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.
The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.
“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”
Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.
“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”
It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!
“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”
“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.
She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.
And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!
There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!
Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.
(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)
“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”
Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”
“That sounds a lot more doable.”
Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.
Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.
She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.
Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.
Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.
Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.
Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.
“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”
“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.
Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”
For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.
“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”
“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”
Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.
At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.
“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”
Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”
She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.
“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”
When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.
The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.
“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“
Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.
“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”
Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.
Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.
Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.
Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.
“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”
Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.
This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.
“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”
Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.
It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.
She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–
–she really did look like just some girl.
Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.
Imani looked happy to see it.
After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.
“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.
“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.
“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”
“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”
“Oh. My condolences.”
“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”
Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.
“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.
Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.
Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.
After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?
“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t it?”
Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.
Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.
“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.
“I dressed up like this for you.”
“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”
Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.
Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!
“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”
In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.
She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.
“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.
“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”
Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.
One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.
To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.
It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.
Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.
“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”
“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”
“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”
“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”
“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”
“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”
She put on a little grin.
Homa shuddered at the thought of it.
“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”
Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.
Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.
“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.
Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.
“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”
“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.
“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”
Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.
According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.
There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.
“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”
“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.
“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”
All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.
Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.
There was something about it that was a little painful, however.
Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?
Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?
“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”
Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.
“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”
“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”
“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.
“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”
“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”
Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.
And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.
In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.
“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.
“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”
“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”
Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.
Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.
Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.
“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”
Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”
“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”
“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”
Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.
At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.
Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.
Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–
She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!
Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”
As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.
Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.
Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.
A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.
Imani giggled as she swiped through them.
“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”
By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.
So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.
“Let’s take a few more!”
After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.
Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.
Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.
Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.
“It’s so cute!”
When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.
She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.
“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”
Homa nodded silently.
Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.
Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.
“Fancy.” Imani said.
She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.
After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.
Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.
Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.
Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.
“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”
Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.
Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.
“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.
Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.
They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–
In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–
Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–
Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.
Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.
With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.
Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.
Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.
“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.
There was an obvious tremble in her voice.
She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.
Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–
“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”
Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.
Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.
“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.
“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”
Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.
“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.
Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.
It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.
“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”
She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.
Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.
An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.
Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.
In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.
“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.
Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.
In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.
“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.
“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”
When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.
“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”
Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.
As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.
There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.
With that in the background, the music became frenetic.
“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”
She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.
Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–
“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–
“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”
Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.
Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?
“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“
She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.
Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.
Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–
“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”
Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–
–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.
With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.
About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.
And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?
But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.
After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.
Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.
And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.
For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.
Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.
Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.
Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.
When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.
Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.
Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.
Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.
But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.
Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.
“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”
Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.
The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.
Over several festive hours,
she had been nurturing affection,
for the girl Imani wished she could be.
“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.
Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.
“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”
Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.
If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.
Then at that moment–
Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.
Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–
–who saved the witch from her demons.
After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.
Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.
It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.
After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.
White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.
“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.
Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.
Then the dinner plates came in.
Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.
This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.
It really was like beefy butter.
Madame Arabie never stood a chance.
“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.
“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”
From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.
“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.
Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.
But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.
Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.
She had to move on.
“Thank you, Imani.”
“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”
She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.
Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.
After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.
That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.
As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.
Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.
Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.
A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.
That most brief glance–
–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.
Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.
Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.
Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.
Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.
That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?
Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.
Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.
“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”
It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.
Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?
Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?
She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.
“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”
In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.
“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“
“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“
Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.
“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.
“They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.
“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.
“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”
“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.
They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.
Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.
“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”
This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.
“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“
For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.
Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.
“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”
Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.
At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.
Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”
Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.
Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.
And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.
What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,
“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”