After Descent, Year 958
Sitting with her back to a metal wall, legs hugged close, tail curled around her waist.
Silencing all of the cries of pain and hunger from every part of her body.
All her heavy eyes needed to focus on was forward. Forward to a new life.
It was dark, the only light provided by the intermittent strobing of sensor LEDs on a few instruments. She could see the impressions of crates, fastened by metal cables and plastic tarps. She shivered, rubbing her hands together. While she was in the cargo hold, she thought about what Aachen would be like. She had heard that Shimii were not hated there and even that Mahdist Shimii did not have to change their names. She expected that the Rashidun Shimii would still be tense, but maybe the Imbrians would be kind.
At least there would be stable work. That much had to be true.
She could endure any kind of abuse; if she could get a job, she could live.
When the cargo hauler got closer to Aachen’s Stockheim port, the bulkhead door separating the hold from the rest of the vessel opened, allowing a spear of light to cut the shadows on each side of the hold into two halves. Rahima remained in the shadow, huddled behind the line of crates. When she heard footsteps into the room, she stood up, dusting off her old ill fitted brown coat and her pants. She walked out from behind a crate and waved lethargically at a man in uniform. He smiled at her and produced something from a pack for her.
“There you are.” He said, “Thank you for your work. As promised,”
A few polymer banknotes to the tune of about a hundred Imperial mark.
And a piece of bread.
At least she would have something in her pocket to start her new life.
Other than her immigration papers.
“Listen, when you leave the ship, take the people conveyor into Stockheim and stop by the immigration office. I know it sounds scary, but you’re smart and you have your papers, you don’t have to worry. Just be polite and answer the questions honestly.” Said the sailor. “Get registered and ask them if there’s some place you can stay. It won’t be good, but you don’t want to be on the street. After that, it’s all up to your luck. There’s honest work out there. You’ve got two good arms and two good legs. Don’t do anything stupid or indecent okay? We don’t want to regret bringing you here.” He patted her shoulder with a smile.
Rahima smiled a little in response. She took a bite out of the bread.
It would have to be enough to get her legs through the day.
Finally, the hauler entered one of Stockheim’s cargo elevators.
Once the area was drained and properly pressurized, the ship laid down its ramp.
Rahima slipped out of the back.
She dropped down onto the metal floor, her thin shoes barely offering protection from the awful cold. She was in a dimly lit cargo processing station and elevator, the ship in the middle, and a variety of instruments to shuffle crates around hanging distantly in the dark. Before the station security figured anything out, she made for the automatic door leading into Stockheim. It opened for her, as it did for everyone– for a moment she had feared it would know she was an immigrant and refuse her. Inside, a people-mover belt sped her from the dim cargo elevator facilities to a brightly lit, extremely modern lobby, glass dividers funneling foot traffic several ways. It was here that Rahima first saw a crowd.
There were holidaymakers heading in, businesspeople heading out,
ten different paths she could take,
a crossroads of living,
She lifted her head and found the direction of the immigration office.
Her clothes were shabby, she had no luggage, and there was no hiding her ears and tail.
However, nobody gave her grief– everyone had some place that they were going to.
Following one nondescript hall after another, she finally found the open door into the immigration office on the side of one such hall. There was a small line of people, slowly moving from just outside the door and into the immigration office. Rahima stood and waited. She was through the threshold in about fifteen minutes and in about fifteen more she was sorted into one of three lanes of people waiting for immigration officers in glass booths to call them forward to talk and show their papers. Rahima was one of the few Shimii in the line. At first, this eased some of her nerves about the situation she was in.
Until, while she was waiting, a Shimii talking to an officer was taken away by guards.
Then her heart began to pound like it wanted to escape from her chest.
Imbrians, too, were subjected to the same treatment, for who knew what reasons.
Soon it felt as if, every other person in the line was made to disappear.
She inched forward, the sight of the faces of those taken away burned into her eyes.
Struggling and begging. Where would they be sent? What would happen to them?
Shaking, she almost missed being called forward to the glass-shielded booths.
Rahima was summoned by a middle-aged woman, blond-haired with a stately face.
Was it better to be processed by a woman? Would she be kinder, have more sympathy?
No– Rahima had seen women before who were as vicious and evil as any man.
“I’m opening a slot. Drop your papers in. Keep your hand away from it.”
In front of Rahima a little drawer popped open suddenly. She almost jumped with surprise.
From her coat, she withdrew and unfurled a few crumpled-up sheets.
Careful not to have her fingers near to it, she dropped the papers into the slot.
In a second it instantly slid closed. Behind the booth the woman withdrew the papers.
With a sour look on her face, she unfurled them, sighing and grumbling, patting them flat.
“I can read these. Sometimes they get too beat up to understand. Be careful next time.”
“Rahima Jašarević, correct?” She pronounced it flawlessly. Rahima was surprised.
“Brennic Shimii? Eighteen years old?”
Rahima nodded her head quietly, her chest trembling.
“Answer the questions verbally please.” Demanded the woman guard.
“Yes to both.” Rahima said, trying to gather her wits at the insistence of the guard.
Then the woman held up one of the papers.
She tapped a finger from behind the paper, over a section that had a seal. That seal had a moon with a green and red pattern indicating the religious category of the person immigrating. For Rahima she had no choice in the matter due to how she was processed for those papers. She could not have lied nor was she given a chance to change anything.
“Mahdist. Is this correct?”
“It is.” Rahima said. She then added, “Will that be a problem?”
Instantly she felt like a fool for asking such a question. Why say anything unnecessary?
“Not with me,” said the woman behind the glass, “might be a problem with your kind.”
Then the woman, still holding up the paper to the shield, tapped a different finger.
This time over an Imbrian-style name listed near Rahima’s own.
“Your sponsor is an Imperial Navy officer. We will contact him. Is this name correct?”
“Yes, it is correct.”
“Alright. You’ll hear from us if he’s never heard from you. Understand?”
In that fashion they went over many rote aspects of Rahima’s identity documentation.
Each question felt like a nail being pounded into Rahima’s chest.
At the start of each line, a pound, unknown whether pain or respite would follow.
Then, at the end of each line, the nail was dug in and no longer hurt. So, then– next nail.
Whether she would bleed out and her heart would stop or whether she would be allowed to continue living, this was a question asked by each lifting of the hammer and each pounding of the nail. Tapping fingers, sharp clicking of the tongue, the slight plasticky sound of the shield being touched or the border guardswoman fiddling with something on her desk. Every time, Rahima asked herself, will this answer have me taken from here?
“Staying for short term or long-term residence?”
Rahima paused. Would it be better to say short term? Would she find it more palatable?
But– staying in Aachen for a short term was useless to her. Where would she go after?
“Long term.” Rahima said.
In that instant she practically saw the truncheon come flying out of the corner of her eye–
“Okay. You’re a solo traveler, do you have any living family? Husband? Kids?”
“No. No family, no spouse– I’m too young for children I think.”
“Alright. We just need to know in case you pass away. Any medical issues to disclose?”
“No. I am healthy.”
“Good for you. Any banking anywhere? Immigrants must get accounts here in Aachen.”
“No. I’ve never had a bank.”
Nothing happened. Just more questions. They were almost through with the papers.
After going through the last lines in the documents, the guardswoman gathered up the documents. She flattened them out one last time, placed each in a plastic sheet and placed each plastic sheet inside a folder, into which everything fit perfectly. She deposited the folder into the slot, which popped out on Rahima’s end.
She gestured for Rahima to pick them back up.
“Compliments of the immigration office. Treat those papers better, that’s your life.”
Rahima reached in, took the folder, and as soon as it was out of the slot, it snapped shut.
“Rahima Jašarević. Welcome to Aachen. You’ll get an entry pass on the way out.”
“I– everything is okay then?”
“Everything is okay.”
Rahima looked down at the folder in her hands. She could almost cry.
“I’ve got some advice for you, Rahima Jašarević.” Said the border guardswoman.
“Oh– that’s right– I wanted to ask about possible lodging.” Rahima said.
“I figured you would.” The woman said. “Listen– don’t go down to the Shimii block. It’s awful, they hate your kind. You’ll end up a thief or a whore with those lowlives. You can read and write, you’re polite, and you finished secondary school. You can get an Imbrian job. I know someone who can help. She’s part of the liberals here. She’ll get you a good job.”
Surreptitiously, the border guardswoman beckoned Rahima to come closer.
Rahima walked up as close to the shield as she could get.
On the woman’s desk, there was a card, with an address and a logo.
A figure with a dress, a woman, playing a flute. Rahima made out the address on the card and read a name: Concetta Lettiere. It was some kind of women’s organization– before Rahima could make out more of the text on the card, the guardswoman hid the card and gestured for her to move back again. Rahima repeated the address in her head.
“Did you get that? She can help you. Go there. Don’t go down to the Shimii.”
As much as Rahima felt that the border guardswoman was being horribly racist–
–the money and opportunities were all with the Imbrians anyway, not in a Shimii ghetto.
She might as well see what she could get out of this “Lettiere” woman.
Having processed Rahima, the border guardswoman opened a door between the booths.
Following this path, another woman handed Rahima a plastic pass card and led her out.
Past the immigration station, there was a long hallway that led to a different lobby.
In this one, there were signs pointing her to the path into the Aachen Core Station.
She was through– she was just another soul in the City of Currents.
There was so much that she had lost. But she still had her life.
And she might have lodging.
From Stockheim, Rahima took one of many small, frequently moving trams between the port structure and the core station. At no point did anyone ask for her card. She was still guarded, but gradually began to feel that there would not be anyone coming after her immigration status. Her clothes elicited some looks– everything was old and scuffed and ill fitting, with faded colors and fraying fabric. But she expected that. She could endure being stared at for being visibly poor. She sat in the tram, caught her breath, and she almost relaxed.
At the drop-off from the tram, Rahima found a tall panel with a three-dimensional map of the Aachen Core Station. The structure was cylindrical with both vertical tiers and concentric horizontal divisions. There was an outer ring structure connected by elevators that contained thousands of offices and apartments. The centermost ring had a novel layout, essentially a vertical mall wrapped around a central atrium spanning multiple floors, with the atrium space hosting floating trees, art installations, small parks and plazas, and other attractions depending on the floor, sometimes accessible, sometimes hovering out of reach.
Rahima followed a lit path from the trams. As she walked, the path expanded, until it fully opened into the landing at the base of the Core Station. Surrounded by people, Rahima raised her head to a ceiling higher than she had ever seen. A sweeping circular path connected platforms with restaurants and businesses encircling a glass shield containing the tall, brightly lit atrium. Suspended under the lights was a series of hanging ornaments in a variety of shapes, shimmering various colors and in turn coloring the landscape.
Rahima was stunned.
She had never seen anything so grandiose in her life.
A ceiling so high, and lights so bright.
Her destination would not take her further into those lights, however.
Judging by the map she had pulled up; she was headed for the outer ring.
Away from all the trendy shops and the colored lights and gold-rimmed glass.
But she lived here now, she had the card, she was a citizen. She would see it again.
From the base of the core station Rahima followed a hallway to the outer rings. This area was much the same as any other place she had lived in before. Grey and blue metal, white LEDs, no luster, just utilitarian pathways, boxy elevators, and doors separated from one another at consistent intervals, indicating each interior to be the same dimensions. She finally found the door she was looking for, distinguished from any other only by the number on its plaque.
She laid her hand on the panel under the plaque. Indicating she was waiting at the door.
Then the door slid open, and she heard a voice calling for her.
“Come in. No need to wait in the lobby, I don’t have anyone else today.”
A woman’s voice with the slightest hint of an accent Rahima could not place.
Rahima stepped through the door. There was a small lobby, just one long couch seat and a small screen playing upbeat jazzy tunes set to video of café ambiances. A second door had a plaque on it with the words ‘Feministiche Partei Rhinea’ and the logo of the woman with the flute, same as Rahima had seen on the business card. She did not know what to expect when she opened the door, and hesitated with her fingers drawing near the handle–
but the door opened, nonetheless.
Inside, there was a white room, with a table in the center, a digital whiteboard taking up much of the far wall, a few screens projecting from one of the near walls, and a small plastic desk. Sparsely decorated, meticulously tidy. There was a neat stack of cards on the desk much like the one Rahima saw at the immigration office, as well as a stack of synthetic shirts and banners. To Rahima, the goods looked like they had not moved for some time.
Behind the cheap, thin desk, there was a woman.
Working on something on a thin-panel monitor, using the surface of the desk as a touch keyboard and saving everything to a memory stick. She was shorter than Rahima, paler, with dazzling green eyes and a soft, almost girlish face. Her hair was white-blue, some collected into a ponytail, some framing her face. She was dressed professionally, grey-brown checkerboard vest, white button-down and tie, pencil skirt and heels.
And her sharp, long ears said even more than that: this woman was an elf, Rahima knew.
“Are you Concetta Lettiere?” Rahima asked.
For a moment the woman looked up from her desk and met Rahima’s eyes.
“It’s not pronounced like ‘conceited’ it’s pronounced like ‘conch’. But I would prefer you call me Conny. Everyone else does and it’s easier for anyone to say. Conny Lettiere.” She said.
“Sorry. Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m Rahima Jašarević. At immigration, a woman–”
Conny interrupted Rahima with the sound of her chair scraping across the floor.
She stood up from her desk and walked over to Rahima and stood near. Conny was almost a head shorter than Rahima, but her confidence movements gave her a strong presence.
“How long has it been since you ate?”
Rahima was too tired to demand she be allowed to speak without interruption.
“I had some bread this morning.” She said, without further elaboration.
“I’ll order us something and have it brought over. Do you have a place to stay?”
“No. I just arrived here today. Do you want to see my papers?”
“I don’t care about your papers, I’m not a cop. It’s fine. Right now, I’m more worried that you might drop at any moment. Are these your only clothes? Do you have any luggage?”
“Nothing but the clothes off my back. I’m really okay– I just need a place to stay.”
Rahima tried to say this, but as soon as she thought about it–
All her body ached. Mind turned to fog. She was hungry. Her mouth was parched.
Her lean, slightly lanky frame had gotten so much thinner since her journey began too.
Before she realized it, she was turning to skin and bones.
So focused on making it to Aachen she never cared in what condition she might arrive.
Conny urged her to sit down at one of the chairs near the table.
“You can stay here. I’ll pull out the futon from storage– I sleep in this office sometimes. Helps me brainstorm. You can stay until you can find your own place. Can you read and write? There are a few jobs you can do around here. I’ll pay you out of the party budget.”
Rahima was taken aback by Conny’s sudden energy. She was talking so fast.
Though she wanted to ask why Conny was so concerned, and why she was so kind–
What came out of her lips was, “what is ‘the party’?”
Conny wore a slightly proud smile as she responded. “The Rhinean Feminist Party. We advocate for the rights of women in Rhinea. We’re only local right now– a subsidiary of the Aachen Liberal Party. But I have huge ambitions! Right now, you’re a girl who needs help, so– some feminist I would be if I just threw you back out the door just like that.”
Despite Conny’s enthusiasm, Rahima understood very little of that through the fog.
It was as if the fear and tension built up over the weeks had been load-bearing for her body.
As soon as she sat, she felt like she would not be able to stand again as easily.
With a moment’s peace to think, the brutality of her struggle finally caught up to her.
“I’ll get you some food and a change of clothes. We’ll talk more when you’re cleaned up.”
Conny smiled, with a hand on Rahima’s shoulder. Rahima nodded weakly at her.
For whatever reason, for the first time in a long time–
Rahima felt like she might be safe.
After Descent, Year 979
“See? I had full confidence that you could walk out here on your own and easily.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s that easy, but I’m not tripping over.”
“You sound so down. Come on, it’s a new station. We’re on a mission! Out and about!”
“You’re on a mission. I’m just coming along.”
“Not at all. I need you. They will relate better to you than to me.”
Homa felt so pathetic about it, but that ‘I need you’ reverberated in her mind for a while.
It was so exactly what she wanted to hear that it pissed her off.
“Whatever. I’ll do what I can.”
Kalika smiled at her. Her makeup, the sleek contours of her face– she was so pretty.
It was impossible for Homa to meet her gaze too directly for too long.
So instead, she turned her eyes on Aachen, laid grandly before her outside the entry lobby.
Never in her life had Homa seen a station interior so broad and ostentatious. Even the mall in Kreuzung had a ceiling closer to the ground than Aachen’s central structure.
There was an atrium so high up it was impossible to see the ceiling, and spiraling around it was a sweeping blue path with frequent stops next to platforms holding what seemed like shops, cafes, offices, and venues of that sort. What stunned Homa the most was that the central atrium structure was sealed off with glass and filled with water, so that the art installations floating inside a cylinder filled with sea water and stirred by machines forming artificial currents. Like bells or chimes, stirred by the water rushing past them, spiraling to the top as the pathway did– but instead of sound, they made color.
And so, it seemed that in front of Homa’s eyes there was a vortex of glass, water, and gems.
That dwarfed any given person crowding the paths that surrounded it.
“They change this every so often.” Kalika said. “Last I was here; it wasn’t full of water.”
“To create the stream, and to pump in the water, I wonder if they connected this to the sea.”
Kalika glanced at Homa. “Good point. I’ll write that down for later investigation.”
Homa averted her gaze again. “I was just saying stuff without thinking.”
“No, it’s a good observation Homa.” Kalika said. “Even if it doesn’t help us right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be useful. Reconnaissance is about gathering any information that might be important and letting HQ sort it out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” Homa said. “But don’t regret it later if I start talking too much.”
After the Volksarmee arrived in Aachen on the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown, Kalika was given a mission to scout out the station for them. There would be other scouting parties going to different places where they might blend in better, and they would collate all their information through encrypted ZaChats each day. Kalika’s mission had a particular focus on the Shimii Wohnbezirk, a residential and business area that was largely if not exclusively populated by Shimii. Homa was given to understand that it was located beneath the core station cylinder and that while Aachen was not technically segregated, the Shimii Wohnbezirk was affordable to live in and had an established religious community so most Shimii chose to live down there. Kalika explained this during their last session of physical therapy– she would be going away for a while and find lodging in the Wohnbezirk.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye then?” Homa had asked.
Their last session was almost a formality. Homa proved she could walk without assistance.
She tried not to feel too downcast– after all, it was inevitable Kalika would–
“Not yet. I am taking you with me. I want you to pretend you’re looking for your family.”
Kalika smiled so sweetly and innocently as if she was not dragging Homa along by the arm.
Though Homa wanted to be dragged along she still acted as if she was complaining.
In her heart there was a mix of trepidation and excitement.
Excitement, because she was going on a trip into a station with Kalika, who was so cool, beautiful, classy and collected– she seemed like an inhabitant of an entirely different world that Homa should have never been able to access. The trepidation, while partly related to Kalika, was more related to their mission. Homa had never felt at home within Shimii communities, and it was a bit farcical to pretend that having her along would make the Shimii Wohnbezirk more accessible. Homa lived as a Shimii but hardly knew the culture.
If anything, she was worried she might screw everything up for Kalika by being there.
Homa had found that Shimii had extreme double standards. Their own people they would judge extremely harshly in all facets, but Imbrians were like an alien race that could go about their business with their only excuse being, “well, that’s how Imbrians are.” Homa never understood that mentality, and the expectations behind it were one of the few ways she felt like a Shimii despite being mixed race. She knew she was a Shimii because of the judgmental eyes on her when she walked by the masjid without attending, when the public prayer bells rang and she kept walking, when she showed up to shops with her Kreuzung passes, when she dressed up in Imbrian clothes. They treated her like they would a Shimii.
She had never been to Aachen but assumed Shimii were just as judgmental everywhere.
Nevertheless, she could not deny Kalika when she was ‘needed’. Homa followed along.
Dressed up in a simple brown coat provided by Kalika, and tough blue worker’s pants from the Brigand’s sailors, over the typical sleeveless button-downs the communists all had on. She finally got her work boots back and tied her dark hair up into a ponytail using the teal necktie instead of wearing it right. Her ears were groomed, her tiny tail fluffed up.
Like Kalika, she wore gloves now to hide her prosthetic.
Around her neck, she wore her good luck charm, the necklace with the piece of silica inside.
Every so often she continued her habit of grasping it gently.
But the beings inside it– the trees?– had not spoken to her again in some time.
“My, who is this handsome stranger? I feel so safe with her around.” Kalika teased.
“Shut up.” Homa said, but her heart soaked in the praise like a sponge filling with water.
Kalika was dressed in her usual attire, with her sword hidden in her bag as always.
Fancy jacket, silver, with see-through sleeves, classier than punk but edgier than formal; synthetic silk shirt, pencil skirt and black tights on her long legs; purple hair pulled up into ponytail framed by her rectangular horns, with tidy bangs covering her forehead; stark pink skin, wine-colored makeup. Shimii had a prevailing idea of Katarrans as being unrefined and monstrous, mostly the same as Imbrians thought of them– but to Homa, Kalika belonged on the cover of a magazine. The contours of her face were so sleek yet so soft-looking.
She was drop dead gorgeous.
“Are you thinking the same about me then, stranger?” Kalika said, winking.
“I wouldn’t call you handsome, I think.” Homa said, folding her ears.
She was, though– she was everything admiring that Homa could say.
Kalika was mystery and beauty and danger and sensuality, on a dazzling pair of legs.
And so, with Homa guarding her heart carefully and Kalika whistling casually, the two of them crossed from the Stockheim tram, into that stunning Aachen lobby, and finally into an elevator bank from which they were headed straight down through the crust of northern Eisental. While the central cylindrical block of Aachen was incredibly beautiful and colorful, this treatment did not extend to the utilitarian sidepaths and the elevators.
Everything outside that atrium and the surrounding mall was what Homa was already used to– cold metal lit by white and yellow LEDs. Like the rest of the world.
“It looks like Aachen has an offset reactor.” Kalika said, while the elevator descended. She laid a finger on a visual representation of the station and their elevator, which was descending into a wireframe box. “The Shimii Wohnbezirk is this box on the map, so the reactor must be this one just off to the side of it. Interesting. I wonder if the Shimii work in the reactor? It would be convenient, but Imbrians aren’t usually so trusting– not that it’s particularly kind of them to let Shimii breathe the salt and get pseudoburns.”
“Well, Shimii can get work in the Kreuzung reactor, if they have a pass and get lucky.”
“Lucky, huh? Well, if that hellhole Kreuzung allows it, Aachen might just allow it too.”
Homa meant ‘get lucky’ in a socioeconomic sense– reactor work paid very handsomely.
Reactor workers could more than make up in cash and benefits the years of life they lost.
Homa had never been brave enough to apply for a job like that, however.
Even at her most desperate, she did not want to trade an untimely demise for money.
When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Homa stepped out into the light of bright white LED clusters hanging high on street-light poles. There was no illusion of a sky. Towering rock walls and a rough, cavernous ceiling surrounded and loomed over a main street with discrete plastic buildings on both sides. Homa got the impression of long alleyways and winding paths just from looking between some of the buildings. She saw an electronics shop peddling the type of portable Homa had once been given by a certain unsavory woman; restaurants and cafes; a Volwitz Foods affiliated grocer and a high-end sneaker shop side by side. As far as she could see, there was activity.
Homa was reminded of Tower Seven immediately.
A parallel world that Shimii did not need to leave with everything in it except whatever rights the Imbrians must have stripped away. In terms of the architecture the buildings were shaped for functionality, none exceeded two stories. Many did not even have a coat of paint and were weathered beige or an off-white, while others were painted in simple greens, yellows and browns. Homa felt more at home once she took a look at all the signage. There were no logos or promotional artwork that had human figures on them. Shimii religious beliefs frowned upon depicting people– so the logos predominantly boasted elaborate Fusha calligraphy and geometric patterns. For the Fusha signs, Homa could barely read many of the characters, but thankfully most had Low Imbrian signage with a translation too.
On the main street, it was all chain stores and affiliates of Imbrian megacorporations, but Homa could still pick out familiar scenes happening all around the LED-lit plastic. A caucus of aunties visiting a stylist; young men haggling with a pawn shop owner; older men with overgrown tail fur sipping tea at the café; kids running ahead of their mothers.
She was surprised to see a lot of flowing hair and ears up in the air, however. True, not all women, especially young women, heeded the scripture when it came to donning a hijab, but Homa had not seen a single traditional hijab anywhere, which she did find odd. Not even the aunties were wearing the traditional headgear. She did see some women with trendy-looking see-through veils attached to caps with pretty patterns on them– a not-uncommon way of modernizing the garb, but not an exclusive one. She wondered whether Aachen’s Shimii were more liberal than normal or whether there was something else. Even in Kreuzung she was used to seeing as many women wearing some kind of headgear than not.
“What do you think, Homa?” Kalika asked, smiling gently at the sights around her.
“I feel so weird being here.” Homa said. “It’s not that much different from Kreuzung.”
“You’re right– whether technical or not, this feels like segregation to me.” Kalika said.
“Well, I don’t know if you asked some of these folks, if they’d want to live with Imbrians.”
That did not make it right– but it was always the most complicated thing about Kreuzung.
Probably also at work here as much as Homa hated to have to think about it.
She was not the one equipped to solve this problem, only the one haunted by it.
“How about we take a look around? I’m not in any hurry.” Kalika asked.
“Lead the way, I’m just following you.”
“Alright. If you want any treats, we can stop somewhere. Don’t be shy.”
“Fine. I’ll let you know.” Homa sighed.
Kalika stepped ahead and Homa followed closely, but still allowing her to lead.
Following the main street, past the throngs of people and the rows of stores, they eventually came up a town square with a small park with a few olive trees growing with a minimal support system. Nothing but lights and irrigation. There was a three-story building with a waving flag that Homa had seen before, and which caused her heart to jump– a Volkisch black sun. Imani Hadzic had an armband with that same symbol. Kalika had noticed it too– she turned Homa around and led her down a side-street deeper into the alleys.
“Let’s go somewhere more– local.” She said.
Homa did not struggle– she did not care where they went.
So into the depths of the Wohnbezirk, the two went.
Kalika made idle chatter as they walked through the winding, intermittently lit paths.
“Homa, I’ve always had a certain curiosity.”
Homa frowned slightly. “A curiosity about–?”
“What does ‘Shimii’ mean?”
“Uh. I think it’s an ancient word for cat?”
Homa pulled gently on the upright, cat-like ears atop her head, by way of illustration.
“I see.” Kalika said. She looked like she was containing some amusement.
Homa let go of her ears, giving them a ponderous rub before doing so.
“I mean, I don’t know how all this happened, obviously. But cats are very admirable.”
Kalika nodded her head thoughtfully.
Rather than list the admirable qualities of cats, Homa delved thoughtlessly into conjecture.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if like– ancient ummah admired cats enough to become cat-like.”
“That is a very cute origin story.”
“Yeah, but– I’m just joking– obviously nobody believes something that silly.”
While the main street had been populated by chain stores, the parallel roads had a few locally owned businesses and a few small religious schools and some homes. The deeper they went through the side paths the less people they saw. But there was still local traffic everywhere they went even if it was only a few people or a small group. They saw a small theater playing new Imbrian movies; a butcher shop that had Homa staring for a few moments at the beef hanging on the window; and a pharmacy selling both Imbrian-affiliated medications and local naturopathic concoctions; among a variety of places with darkened windows and shut doors, where they had no idea whether anything was inside.
There were less streetlamps, so the side paths were gloomier than the main street.
None of the people walking past seemed to mind the span between lamps, however.
After some walking through nondescript blocks, they reached one of the girder-reinforced rock walls and found a map of the Wohnbezirk on an interactive panel. Kalika stopped and began poking on it. Judging by the map, there was not just one street or three– the layout was an entire town under Aachen with a few kilometers of space and several districts hewn into the rock. There was an entire residential district they had not even gone near.
And a small village off on a corner away from everything else.
“So many people, and I haven’t seen any Uhlankorp. I guess that’s convenient for us.”
“But is it convenient for the people here?” Homa said.
“I think so– do you think the Uhlans would administer fair justice here?”
“I guess not.” Homa sighed.
She had never lived anywhere that had ‘friendly’ police. She had grown up being taught to be respectful but to keep away and keep quiet; the implicit understanding that police wielded justice for Imbrians and not her– hell, maybe not even for Imbrians. Maybe only for themselves. Could not one single thing in the world be fair to everyone?
“We’ll do what we can to help Homa. Maybe not short term– but be patient with us.”
Kalika offered her a small smile while looking up directions in the map.
“Homa, I want to see some local color. Where would you go in this situation?”
She gazed back at Homa. Homa averted her eyes and shrank a little bit.
“It’s not like I have any experience with this. I guess I would want to go to people I know– if I just ended up here by myself I might go to a grocer or a barber or something. Places where you find young guys or aunties– those are the types that are always chatty. I wouldn’t bother with the chain stores in the main street or trying to go to the masjid for small talk.”
“Why don’t you pick a place and lead the way? We can start running our little scam.”
“Don’t call it that– someone might hear.”
Kalika’s ‘little scam’ was for Homa to ask about ‘her family’ like a pathetic lost child.
It was a valid idea for learning more about the town, but Homa did not like it.
She approached the map and saw there was a greengrocer a few blocks away.
Without saying anything she put her hands in her pockets and nodded for Kalika to follow.
Homa turned her eyes on the ground as if she did not want anyone to see them.
Walking casually on her prosthetic leg should have felt like a triumph.
But replicating the miserable, lonely walking she did in Kreuzung, trying to seem small and to draw no attention–
It was depressing. Even with Kalika alongside her it all felt so depressingly circular.
Every Shimii habitat in the Imbrium– was it all the same? Homa wandered in thought.
No sooner had they turned the corner, however, that Homa walked into someone.
She felt a shock the instant of the impact. How foolish could she be?
Especially for Kalika to have seen her–!
“Watch where you’re fucking going– oh, oh hey, who the fuck are you? Katarran?”
Homa’s heart sank as soon as she recovered and caught sight of who she had run into.
In front of them on the street was a group of four young men, all of them skinny-looking, maybe even younger than Homa by a year or three. The one Homa had walked into had a fiery look in his eyes, gesturing with his hands as if demanding an explanation (or compensation) be laid on his palms. The whole group was dressed in Imbrian fashions, with zip-up hooded jackets with see-through vynil sleeves and big black pants and colorful sneakers. Their tails were straight, and their ears were folded, and their body language was tense, coiled-up, ready to release. It was supposed to be forbidden for a good Shimii to imitate Imbrians too much, but to Homa, these boys were archetypical Imbrian hooligans. All they were missing was jewelry and a football game in which to hurl verbal abuse.
“What’s a Katarran doing down here? You gawking? Here to fuck with us?”
Homa glanced briefly at Kalika and saw her staring down the lead hooligan.
She was not saying anything in response to the provocation.
Did she want Homa to be the one to talk?
“Not gonna talk? Did you bring her here, you little punk? I don’t recognize you.”
With Kalika, the obvious discrepancy, keeping mum, the hooligan turned to Homa again.
“I’m not from around here! I’m just visiting! She’s– she escorted me here!” Homa said.
Kalika sighed openly.
“You’re here visiting? Here?” The hooligan looked at his friends who all had a laugh with him. “And you bought a Katarran?” He turned sharply back to Homa, reached out a hand and shoved her. “You ought to make a donation, then, you rich bitch– you ran right into me and scuffed my favorite jacket. Do you know how much I had to hustle for it? I can’t afford to travel all over like you. So, you should make a contribution to the less fortunate.”
“We’re not looking for trouble here. But if you touch her again, you’ll regret it.”
Kalika stepped forward.
Homa thought that would have been enough to get them to back off–
“Want some? Katarran bitch! Go back to the fucking vat you got shat out from!”
But a sense of invulnerability was a universal folly of young men, inculcated by a system designed to insulate them from any consequences. So even these boys, who had no concept of what they were messing with and nothing but the chip on their shoulder to strike with, still formed up in front of Kalika as if Katarrans were everyday targets of their fists. It was enough to unnerve Homa, but Kalika was unmoved in their presence.
Homa saw her fingers sliding over her bag.
None of the boys knew what was in there– but Homa feared what might come to pass.
So, she stepped forward even closer than Kalika, directly in front of the hooligans.
Not knowing what she could possibly say to sound intimidating–
She lost her opportunity and received an even more forceful shove than before.
Thrown back to be caught by Kalika.
Homa could practically feel the burgeoning anger in Kalika’s grip.
It punctuated her own helpless foolishness. She was shaking with frustration at herself–
Suddenly a new voice sounded across the street.
“Hey! Knock it off! Stooping to street harassment now, you lowlives?”
Hurried steps sounded behind them; then a dark-skinned girl appeared in front of them.
Homa saw long black hair, the glint of golden eyes, a brief glance of a fierce expression.
She interposed herself between Kalika, Homa and the boys, standing firm.
With one hand in her pocket of a brown jacket made of a thick fabric.
Despite the difference in numbers the boys seemed more hesitant to approach her.
They still had to posture like they could fight, but they were slowly beginning to back off.
“Where the hell did you come from? You need to get your ass back to the Quarter, bitch!”
“Fuck off! I’m not afraid of you! Why don’t you step up to me like you did to them?”
Not even the taunt could get any of the boys to reach out for a shove or throw a punch.
Surreptitiously they drew back even as they continued to shout.
“Mahdist bitches! We’ll kill you if we see any of you again!”
There was a note of desperation in that voice.
“Get out of here already!” The young woman shouted at them.
Hurling slurs and abuse, the boys ran from the scene, dispersed with surprising urgency.
Kalika lifted her hand from her bag. And the young woman took her hand out of her jacket.
While Homa composed herself, her chest fluttering with shame.
“Calling me a Mahdist like it’s a slur, the nerve of them.” The girl said, grunting.
She was someone who had to be around Homa’s age, not a child by any means and yet not experienced in the fullness of her adulthood. Her face and body Homa thought resembled her own, like someone who was young and unmarred by the world, but frequently worked with her hands. She had a stronger back and shoulders than Homa did, however. She looked visibly poor– Her jacket was well worn, with scuff marks and frayed edges and missing buttons, but very sturdy, worn over a blue blouse. She wore black pants that were ripped in places and thick boots. Her ears had messy fur and her tail had a few scars on it.
“Are you okay? They didn’t rob you or anything, did they?” She asked.
Homa was surprised at how dark her skin was, almost as dark as her long, sleek and shiny hair, flat down her back but grown unruly in the sides and front with a lot of bangs and stray wavy locks. Her eyes contrasted the flesh around them to an intense degree. She had a mix of familiar and interesting facial features; she had an oval face with thin lips, her eyes had a slight narrowness to them, her nose was very straight, her eyebrows were a bit thick.
The contemptuous expression that the handsome young lady had directed at the hooligans melted into a much gentler look of concern for Kalika and Homa.
“Thanks to your intercession, it did not get that far.” Kalika said.
“Yes. Thank you.” Homa said, still feeling like too much of an idiot to say much more.
The girl put her hand on her own chest as a gesture of greeting.
“I’m Sareh. I hope those guys won’t leave you with a bad impression of us.”
“Not at all.” Kalika said, smiling. “I’m Kalika, this is Homa. Trust me, we’ve seen worse.”
Homa waved half-heartedly, still keeping mum.
“I appreciate you not putting them in the dirt. They’re just a bunch of morons.” Sareh said.
Homa thought Sareh must have known a thing or two about Katarrans to have judged that.
If she was hiding a gun in her jacket, then she wasn’t oblivious to this sort of scenario.
She might have interceded on behalf of those boys as much as she did to stop them.
“Usually when Shimii immigrate here, there will be an introduction by their family at the Rashidun masjid on the other side of town– or they get sent straight to the Mahdist quarter.” Sareh said, directed primarily at Homa. “It is odd for Shimii to just visit; especially with a Katarran. Tourists stick to the main street to buy trendy stuff. Back here, it’s all locals. So that’s why it looks kind of weird for you two to be wandering around these streets.”
“I’m–” Homa felt ashamed lying to Sareh, who seemed genuinely friendly to outsiders like them. But it was necessary. “I’m not immigrating. I’m looking for my family– when I was a kid I was sent to Kreuzung by myself. My surname is– Messhud. Homa Messhud.”
She picked surname that read as Mahdist since Sareh had been called a Mahdist. But she also picked an uncommon one and pronounced it quite strangely, in the hopes no locals had it.
“Huh. Well, I don’t know everyone here, but I know someone who might be able to help.”
Sareh pointed in a direction where the rock ceiling lowered, and the walls narrowed.
“Over that way is the Mahdist quarter. I can take you to my part– my friend, there.”
Kalika seemed to pick up on her correcting herself. Mild amusement crept into her smile.
Homa looked back to Kalika as if for permission. Kalika nodded her head.
And thus, fortune led them ever deeper into the Wohnbezirk– to a Mahdist ghetto.
After Descent, Year 961
“Guten morgen, my name is Rahima, and I am calling on behalf of the Rhinean Feminist Party. Do you need assistance registering to vote or accessing your local polling office to exercise your right to vote? We would be happy to assist you, free of charge.”
Another call sent to voice-email. Rahima tapped on her keyboard to end the call.
She had a headset to make calls to people’s rooms notifiying them of upcoming elections.
Hands on the keyboard, headset always ready, a list of room addresses to call up.
She could go through a dozen rooms quickly– if nobody picked up.
When someone picked up, Rahima felt much more nervous than leaving voicemails.
“Guten morgen, my name is Rahima,”
Since she had immigrated a few years ago, Rahima had been doing much better for herself.
Her hair had grown out, richly brown, and her cheeks had filled again. Her arms and legs were no longer so skinny and her back had broadened a bit. She had new clothes, Imbrian business attire; a vest, shirt, a blazer and pants. Her skin, which had been turning pale and yellowing with neglect and sickness, had returned to its light brown richness. All of this thanks to her new income. She was the workhorse of the Rhinean Feminist Party, carrying boxes of logo-branded goods to and fro, fixing things around the office that Conny did not want to bend down or climb up a ladder for, picking up lunch, and now, making calls.
At first there was not much to do around the office but menial manual labor.
Even so, Conny hardly wanted to do it, and so happily paid for it to be done.
Now, however, there was a buzz of excitement.
Emperor Konstantin von Fueller had made a historic decree. The Imperial monarchy and its offices would no longer contradict local decision-making in the duchies provided it was done through legally approved means. This was being referred to as ‘the Emperor’s retreat from politics.’ Law enforcement between the territories would continue to be carried out by the Inquisition, Patrol and Imperial Navy, but each Duchy could control its economy and social policies without intervention. For territories like Veka with an authoritative duchal family, little would change. For Rhinea, however, this was a moment of great opportunity.
Rhinea’s duchy had long since relinquished decisionmaking power to generations of the noveau rich who had then formalized that power in the Rhinean Reichstag.
Now the Reichstag would have more weight than ever as Rhinea’s policy-making body. Established parties like the Liberals and Conservatives attracted real corporate investment, as it became clear they could be a nexus for further reform of the economy to suit some interest or another; and even niche parties like the Rhinean Feminist Party now had opportunities to grow. The All-Rhinea stage was still barred from them, but if they could make a strong showing in Aachen’s local politics, they might turn their fortunes.
Right now, they were under the Rhinean Liberals, but they could grow, attract members.
With greater membership, they could run on their own ticket for council and executive.
And with any amount of victories in a real ticket, they might then attract real investment.
Therefore, Conny had Rahima making phone calls down the entire room registry.
Rahima kept making calls, running through the script, trying her best when picked up.
Until she felt a gentle squeezing from a pair of hands on her shoulders.
“You’re working hard. Want to get lunch together?” Conny Lettiere said.
“I’ll never say no to lunch. Your treat?” Rahima said.
“My treat.” Conny said. Rahima could feel her smile even without looking at her.
When she turned around to look at her, she immediately thought–
Conny looked gorgeous.
Wearing a cardigan that had a pattern of thicker and sheerer material across its surface and bits that hung from the hem and the end of the sleeves, over a plastic tanktop with a deep cleavage plunge that cut off mid-belly, both quite provocative. Bell-bottomed pants and open-toed shoes gave her such a bohemian look, and her hair being collected into twintails added to the almost girlish style. Colorful, full of youthful vibrancy.
Rahima could have never dressed like that.
Conny had the energy to be more frivolous because she had Rahima to be serious for her.
“Is it the outfit, or is it me?” Conny said, grinning at Rahima.
“It’s both.” Rahima said, smiling as she stood up.
If only she had Conny’s courage– but that was something she could work on.
They relocated from the office to the central ring of the Aachen Core Station, following the spiraling walkway around the central atrium and its bright decorations. They stopped off at a platform three stories high and sat in a corner table of a small restaurant that served homestyle Imbrian fare. It was a small, homey venue, little more than a serving desk, an unseen kitchen, and six tables with four chairs. Very few people took up the very few seats in the establishment. Most of the people on the lunch rush picked up their meal from the counter and walked back out, headed back to their offices or workplaces.
Conny ordered cheese-stuffed dumplings served in a meat and tomato sauce.
“You know, this is based on the Elven dish ‘Ravioli.’ It’s an Imbrian take on it.”
“You don’t say?”
Rahima, meanwhile, ordered a pickled cucumber soup with a simple dinner roll. The soup had a base of chicken broth full of earthy vegetables, flavored with pickle brine, and topped with a dollop of cream and a big mound of grated pickled cucumbers and peppers. Rahima mixed everything together, broke off pieces of bread and dipped it into the unctuous soup. It was rich and tangy; it warmed her heart; it was just what she needed to soothe her throat after hours of talking. Even something this simple felt luxurious– especially with Conny.
“Rahima, do you go down to the Wohnbezirk often?” Conny asked.
She meant the Shimii town in the rock under the Aachen core baseplate.
“I’ve been visiting more often since I got the apartment. Easier to do now that I don’t have to worry about someone seeing me going back and forth from the office.” Rahima replied.
“Do you go to the religious festivals? I don’t see you praying often.”
Conny took a bite of her dumpling, and Rahima could have sworn her sharp ears wiggled.
“It’s a bit tough for me Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m a Mahdist so if I want to go celebrate I have to go into the Mahdist ghetto– and then the Rashidun in the town will know about it.”
“Will that put you in danger?”
“I don’t know. It’s just another thing that could be a problem. Common prejudices.”
“I see. That’s so unfair. But I don’t want you to be overly concerned with appearances.”
“No, it’s better this way. We need to be careful about things like that, Conny.”
“Rahima, I might not know the cultural nuances that resulted in the Shimii’s troubles. But what we have going for us at the Rhinean Feminist Party is that we stand for radical politics! I want this to be a place where you can dream of a better world! You should never have to hide what you are or believe in here. I want women to be equal to men in the Imbrium, to end forced marriages, to get equal wages, to make workplaces safer; so, what are your dreams, Rahima? What can we do for the Shimii, and especially for Shimii women?”
After a long contemplation over the pickles in her soup, Rahima finally answered.
“I want to end the hijab ban; and to decouple Shimii suffrage from residency.” She said.
Her voice was a bit meek, as if there was a secret sin to saying such things.
Conny smiled brightly. “That’s what you’ll stand for then! We’ll fight for it together!”
She reached across the table and laid her hand over Rahima’s own, firm and supportive.
Rahima had never thought it about so closely before– it almost made no sense to her that she might be on the ticket for the Rhinea Feminist Party. They had few members, so if they wanted to run someone other than Conny, she had to be on the ticket. But she had an unexamined idea that only Imbrians got to be in the government, and a Shimii like her, a Mahdist even, could not have possibly been put on the ticket. Perhaps even the first time she saw her, Conny’s unspoken radicalism had already imagined Rahima on that ticket.
“I’m kind of nervous about this, Conny, if I’m being honest.” Rahima said.
“Don’t be. I’ll coach you. You’ve already got an advantage– you dress more formally!”
Conny reached out and rubbed her fingers over a bit of Rahima’s blazer, laughing.
Rahima laughed with her. Her heart was racing, but she felt strangely positive.
It would be nice to give the Imbrians a black eye in their own game.
After Descent, Year 979
“Kalika, I have a curiosity.” Homa said.
As she spoke she mimed Kalika’s earlier tone a bit, with a hint of mockery.
“Ask away, dear.” Kalika said, clearly ignoring Homa’s taunting.
Homa’s eyes narrowed a bit when Kalika did not take the bait.
“What does ‘Katarran’ mean?” She said.
“It means ‘the damned’ or ‘the ones born cursed’.” Kalika said casually.
Homa quieted down for the rest of the walk. She had not expected something so dark.
“Almost there,” Sareh said, looking back at them as she led the way, “can you tell?”
On the northern end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk the cavernous ceiling descended closer and there was an area where the walls tightened. For a stretch, there were more exposures of the rock wall, less buildings and other structures to cover it up. There were more boarded-up, old and empty buildings too. Some had signs indicating they were for sale or rent but many, many more were just shuttered as if permanently abandoned. The road under their feet roughened slightly, it was less paved down, and even the air felt a bit thinner.
Eventually Homa could see the square entryway to another area up ahead.
“Shit.” Sareh said. “Our oxygen generator must be going again. Ugh, this sucks!”
“That’s not good.” Kalika said. “But hey, maybe we can help each other out.”
“Do you really mean that? I am not sure what you could do.” Sareh said.
“We’ll talk when we meet your friend, but try to trust me and keep an open mind.”
“Well, alright. We’re basically there. Our own dusty little corner.” Sareh said.
Homa could see it too. As soon as she caught her first glimpses of the village–
Her fist closed and shook with an impotent rage.
They crossed under an archway with an open gate that had a few bars broken on its doors. Here the ceiling was close enough to form something of a short tunnel, but then it opened back up into a little village. It was much more haphazardly planned than the main street of the Wohnbezirk. There were less streetlights, and only one short street that seemed to terminate on a double-wide building being used as a masjid. However, behind the masjid, and behind each house on the one street, there were more buildings set up, like a haphazard little village arrayed from the masjid as one of its central features.
There were a few dozen people hanging out in this little main street. They were like Shimii were everywhere– they dressed as nicely as they could, they had lively conversation, their ears were standing, their tails swaying. Homa noticed a few more frayed and discolored items of clothing here and there. There was also nowhere for them to go. This village was much smaller than the rest of the Wohnbezirk but there were a lot of people in it.
All of the buildings were plastic, but shabbier ones, less maintained. Rather than paint, many of them had pieces of patterned fabric for decorations. Just like the rest of the Wohnbezirk, there were shops here, but very few. There were no restaurants either. Homa saw a cobbler, a stylist, and a clothing atelier. All had very lively crowds like they were bright little local hangouts. There might have been more. But the streets looked mostly residential.
Other than the masjid, what drew Homa’s attention the most was a small clearing to the right a few dozen meters from the entrance gate. On this clearing, a plastic stage was in the final stages of assembly, with chairs around it, and a curtain that could open and close around it with poles and pulleys and carbon cable. It was sturdy and relatively new, the color of the plastic looking much fresher than that of the plastic in the surrounding houses.
In the back of the stage there was a square structure erected which resembled a small building facade, the size of an adult human being, with numerous arched entryways and a sweeping upper rim. Colored gold and red with blue patterning, its the spires dome-like and green, it was perhaps the most inventive little thing in the whole Wohnbezirk, nicer looking than any of the real houses. Homa wondered what monument it was supposed to be a replica of, since Shimii never built structures like this nowadays. Perhaps it was supposed to be a palace, maybe of one of the ancient kings, or maybe it related to the Mahdi.
“It’s a Tazia.” Sareh explained. She must have caught Homa staring at it. “We’re preparing for the Tishtar festival– it’s a yearly celebration we have around here. On Tishtar we recall the heroism of Ali Ibn al-Wahran, blessed be he, who opened the ocean for the Shimii. We build a replica of the mausoleum that his companions built. It’s not actually anyone’s grave though– the great hero al-Wahran is not really dead. Tradition stuff, you know? It’s kind of a hero festival, kind of a water festival, kind of a folk– well if you join us, you’ll see what I mean.” Her tone grew a bit awkward as if she either did not know how to explain it well.
Homa suddenly froze up upon hearing the name of the blessed old Hero, however.
She recalled a dream in which a red-headed demon of a woman spoke that name to her.
“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes.”
Ali Ibn al-Wahran.
What had she meant– when she said Homa was– of his flesh–?
Was it just because she was a Shimii–? Or was she– a Mahdist–?
“I’ve– I’ve never heard of him I think. I’m sorry.” Homa said, suddenly nervous.
“Huh? Really?” Sareh said, staring at Homa with curious surprise. “You don’t know? He’s like, the most important of the ancient kings. For Mahdists, we are also taught he is the Mahdi, a great hero who will return to us. I guess you must not be a mahdist– but I mean that’s okay! We don’t judge anyone here as long as they don’t judge us. So don’t stress out over it.”
Sareh continued to act a bit awkward around the subject of her religion and its rites.
Kalika continued to smile neutrally, her expression collected as Homa and Sareh spoke.
“Ah, thanks. It’s okay. I’m– I’m non-denominational–” Homa stammered as awkwardly.
It was just a stupid dream– she shouldn’t take it so seriously–
didn’t the trees sing to her,
and the red-haired woman awaken the colors–?
wait, what colors?
“I’d love to stick around for the festival. Wouldn’t you Homa?” Kalika said suddenly.
Homa jerked her head to look at Kalika, eyes drawn open. “Uh. I mean. Sure! I’ll stay.”
Kalika must have had some plan to make use of the Mahdists here to her advantage.
Or– maybe she just wanted to help them.
She and the Volksarmee were a bunch of communist weirdos after all.
Homa did not know if she considered herself one, but she was still just following Kalika.
So she had little choice but to do as the communists did.
When she looked around this tucked-away piece of the Shimii world, cast into obscurity–
She felt angry. And there was no good outlet for that anger.
So perhaps she should help. It could be educational as well.
Without a family, Homa had never been afforded much of her religion.
Leija certainly never cared to teach her anything, except vague prejudices against Mahdists.
For all she knew she really could have been a Mahdist just like them.
“Alright! The more the merrier!” Sareh smiled at them. “Then let me introduce you to the lady organizing things. She happens to be the friend of mine I told you about. We can talk with her about getting you two into the festivities– and maybe other business.”
Kalika nodded, smiled, and followed behind Sareh.
She glanced at Homa and winked at her.
Homa blinked, confused, but followed along. Kalika was definitely plotting something.
Hopefully something good and kind– and not too troublesome.
Sareh led them to the masjid, and then around an exterior walkway. Behind the masjid there was a solitary old olive tree, living with an oxygen controller grafted onto its trunk, and a path of flattened out rock that led to a small plastic house next to one of the few light poles that were installed in the village. There was enough empty space between this house and the rest of the village that it felt more a part of the masjid than part of the residences.
Sareh pointed it out as their destination.
“Baran! Are you home? I’m back from town! I’ve brought some visitors too!” Sareh called.
“Welcome back! Yes, you can come in! I’ll be happy to welcome them.”
Homa had not known what to expect, but the voice greeting them sounded pretty young.
Sareh waved her hand toward herself, inviting the guests in.
Rather than a door, the house had a curtain over its entry similar to ones on its windows.
Sareh pushed away the blue and green curtain. Beyond the entry, there was one room that contained almost all the acoutrements of living. There were a few plastic chairs around a little table, in one corner. On one wall, there was a screen with a cable snaking out of one of the windows. Plastic buildings did not have built-in computers and projection monitors, like the metal rooms in the station. Another corner was taken up by an electric pot and kettle stood up on a small refrigerator, their cords snaking into the wall.
Finally, there was a set of plastic shelves that held cutlery, bowls, cups, and a variety of little knick-knacks. There were dolls of Shimii girls, with colorful dresses, and a little resin horse, and a cup and ball game– kid’s toys and handicrafts. While the horse was stitcher-machined, the rest looked a bit rougher and might have been hand-made, Homa thought.
At the end of the room there was another curtain. Out from it stepped their host.
Her bedroom must have been behind there. Homa did not see a bed anywhere else.
“It’s so nice to have visitors! Not many people come by here. Introduce me, Sareh!”
“This is my– friend, Baran Al-Masshad.” Sareh said.
She looked to have been reaching for words for a second.
Baran giggled and put her hand to her chest by way of greeting.
Her voice was quite lovely– Sareh seemed momentarily stricken by it and averted her eyes.
In general, Baran might have been the prettiest girl Homa had seen in a very long time.
She looked about Sareh’s age and therefore, Homa’s age. Unlike Sareh, who dressed in utilitarian Imbrian clothing usually typified as boyish, Baran wore a long blouse and skirt. Her eyes were deeply green and her skin a light honey-brown, with bigger eyes and slightly softer cheeks than Sareh. Her hair was worn long, and it had a very light reddish-brown tone. Like the other religious women Homa had seen in Aachen she did not wear a hijab but instead wore a see-through veil with a small cap. Hers was blue with little moon patterns on it, through which tall, fluffy ears poked. Her tail was a bit skinny, but as far as her figure, she had more than Sareh or Homa. She thankfully looked like she got to eat regularly.
After seeing the state of the buildings, Homa had been worried there might be starvation.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Al-Masshad.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia.”
She put a hand to her chest as she had seen Sareh and Baran do.
“Um. Salam. I’m Homa– Messhud. Homa Messhud. It’s– it’s nice to meet you two.”
Homa also put her hand to her chest. She was feeling rather awkward with her cover story.
“Oh, my whole name is Sareh Al-Farisi.” Sareh said, after receiving a little look from Baran.
“It is a pleasure to meet all of you.” Baran said. “Please just call me Baran.”
“I hope our unannounced appearance won’t trouble you, Baran.” Kalika said.
“Not at all. I was just resting. It might be my imagination, but the air is feeling thinner.”
“It is thinner. I think the air generator must be busted again.” Sareh said, sighing.
“I truly hope not– nevertheless, we can check on it after we have treated our guests.”
Baran gestured for Kalika and Homa to sit and then approached the electric pot.
Cracking the lid open, steam rising up, filling the room with a savory aroma; Baran scooped up steaming pulao rice into two bowls and passed them to Sareh, who in turn passed them to Homa and Kalika. From the kettle, she poured two cups of lukewarm tea. Homa looked down at the bowl of rice, eager to spot some chicken or beef within– instead finding only raisins and onions. While the aroma was incredible she could not help but feel disappointed.
Kalika looked down at the contents of her bowl, mixing things up further with a fork.
“We should accept it.” Homa whispered. “Turning down food from a Shimii is very rude.”
“I figured.” Kalika whispered back. “I was getting a bit peckish anyway.”
Baran handed Sareh her own bowl and cup and served herself as well.
Together, they all sat down on Baran’s table, with Kalika setting down her bag beside her.
“I’m afraid I am out of yogurt and sabzi, or I would offer you some.” Baran said.
“This is fantastic on its own. We can’t thank you enough for your hospitality.” Kalika said.
Homa nodded her head, trying to hide her wan expression at her continuing lack of meat.
“Baran, if you’re out of something, you should have told me!” Sareh said.
Baran shook her head. “I’m being thrifty now so we can spend more on the feast.”
“You shouldn’t have to do that.” Sareh grumbled but seemed to give up the argument then.
Homa looked at Kalika. While she ate, she was clearly observing Baran and Sareh.
She hoped dearly Kalika was not going to cause them any trouble.
All the communists she had met had been nice to her– but Kalika was “on a mission,” now.
Would she behave any differently? Would she try to take advantage of these people?
Helpless to do anything about it, Homa took her first spoonful of pulao into her mouth.
Her ears stood on end as the smooth, deeply savory flavor coated her mouth. Pops of tart sweetness from the raisins, and the crunchy red onions, lended the dish some complexity. The rice itself had a bit of cumin and Shimii pepper, maybe– but the real mystery was the deeply savory, velvety mouthfeel that came with each spoonful of rice, and the meaty flavor that it carried. Her mouth was slick with thekind of flavor she had been craving.
Baran saw the expression on Homa’s face and smiled proudly. Sareh stared at her in turn.
“Want to know the secret, Homa? Rendered down chicken trimmings and bones!” Baran smiled like she had been clever. Sareh looked at her as if with mild embarassment. Heedless of this, Baran continued. “It’s the cheapest stuff from the butchers out in the town. I can make my own chicken oil and stock with it, and have my meat that way!”
A proud, smug little smile remained fixed on Baran’s face while her guests ate.
Homa savored the rice like it was the last time she might ever taste any meat.
“And before someone comments on the state of my pantry again, I am saving up so there will be meat on Tishtar. You are welcome to partake if you’d like to attend.” Baran said.
She looked at Sareh with a self-satisfied little face. Sareh looked back, exasperated.
Homa felt rather ashamed of how much this made the festival more attractive to her.
But not enough to reject the idea of showing up for the feast outright.
“As you can see, this is the sort of character our village chief is.” Sareh replied, grinning.
“Now, what is that supposed to mean? Good with budgeting? A genius chef?” Baran said.
Sareh shrugged and did not pick any of the available options.
“Oh interesting, she’s the chief? I thought she was just putting on the festival.” Kalika said.
“I don’t consider myself important.” Baran said. “The Imbrians are the ones who have true power over the Wohnbezirk. But my father and his family were very respected within this community. When my father passed away, the villagers wanted me to take up his hereditary titles. I just help around town and I consider the title purely ceremonial.”
“Is it because of the Imbrians that this place is so run-down?” Homa asked.
Kalika shot her a glance as if surprised. Homa realized she was being too blunt.
Sareh shot her a look too– but Baran was not offended. She began to explain.
“They are not solely responsible. However, they could fix things if they wanted to, and they do not. So that is a form of responsibility they must be criticized for.” Baran said. She put down her cup of tea and put her hands on her lap. “I’m sure you know, Homa, that there is a lot of bad blood between Mahdist Shimii and Rashidun Shimii. I don’t know the entire history of the Wohnbezirk, but it’s been segregated for as long as I have lived here. There are harsh rules imposed on us. For example, we are not allowed to grow food, we can only buy it in town. We also need to get any materials we use from the Shimii economy. Rashidun Shimii won’t offer us any charity, nor prefer us for anything. Sometimes, people will be upset if we try to buy too much or buy things that are scarce. Sometimes the Imbrians help us, but we are in essence responsible for everything here by ourselves. But despite that we–”
Here, Sareh suddenly interrupted. “Don’t mince words. Look, the problem is, this is a town of mostly women, children and old people. We risk being harassed every time we try to leave so only some of us go out infrequently. Very few people here earn outside incomes and we have limited imports; some families get remittances from kids who got work in the Core Station, and we have some aunties here who do clothes and shoes, but they are basically all trading the same reichmarks around. These conditions are supposed to put pressure on us– they want us to renounce our culture and become Rashidun and move into town to kill the village. All of the shiftless piece of shit men here left because of that–”
“Sareh, please, that’s enough.” Baran interrupted. Homa picked up a note of desperation.
Sareh stood up from her chair and left the table suddenly. Baran sighed as she watched her.
Homa raised her hands as if she wanted to stop her or apologize but could not speak out.
She sat back down on her chair feeling defeated. Kalika remained silent and calm.
After a minute’s silence Baran turned to their guests and tried to smile again.
“I’m sorry about that.” She said. “Politics and religion should not be off the table; we just need to be able to speak about them politely. That’s what my father always taught me. So please do not feel responsible for what just happened. Sareh is extremely dear to me; and I know I am dear to her. She just needs to cool off and we will rejoin her then.”
“Um. Right. Thank you.” Homa said, nervously.
“I’m glad Sareh is that tough– she seems like she needs to be that way around here.” Kalika said. She had finished her bowl and tea. “I feel like I’ve seen enough so I will be forward. Baran, Homa and I can help you. We want to stay for the festival. Homa has some money– she’s looking for her family here. Right Homa? And I’m a Katarran mercenary.”
Kalika looked over to Homa with a casual and untroubled smile.
Homa straightened up in her chair and put her hands on the table, stiffly.
“Yes. That– That’s all completely true.” She said.
“Then– you will help us with the festival, so Homa can search for her family here?”
“That’s what I’m thinking.” Kalika said.
“I would be happy to help– but there’s a lot to do for the festival. It’s an unequal trade.”
“Homa’s family means a lot to her.” Kalika said, glancing at Homa again.
Homa stiffed up more. “Uh. Yeah. I’m– I’m a real family cat.” She wiggled her ears a bit.
“You said your surname is Messhud?” Baran asked. “I was thinking– it could be a weird way of saying my surname, Al-Masshad– or maybe I just don’t know everyone around here. Surely some of the aunties would know more. I can ask them. Would that be okay, Homa?”
For a moment Homa felt extremely stupid about how close her hastily chosen fake surname came to being Baran’s actual surname. Had she tacked on an ‘al’ prefix there she would have been cooked. Somehow, the close call felt more embarassing than being completely caught in an outright lie, and Homa was growing to hate the entire situation.
She began evaluating everything she wanted to say to the very simple question of whether she was okay, running it by an intense committee in her own brain. The result of this was that for close to thirty seconds she was saying absolutely nothing to Baran.
“She’s shy– hasn’t gotten around much.” Kalika kept smiling. “Please do ask around.”
Baran looked at Homa for a moment and then smiled more warmly at her.
“No need to be shy– it means so much to me that you want to help us.” Baran said.
“I am actually a communist. If I ignored all this, I’d bring shame on myself.” Kalika said.
Homa’s ears and tail both shot up as straight as they could go.
She shot Kalika a glance from the edge of her eyesockets, without moving her head.
Trying with all of her body to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!
Without in fact saying a single word or even making so much as a noise.
“That’s so interesting. You might like to talk to the NGO people then.” Baran said happily.
Homa shot a glance at Baran. She felt like she was in an alternate universe suddenly.
Wasn’t she going to inform on them to the Volkisch? She just heard the c-word out loud!
Kalika continued to look and act as if nothing odd or auspicious was happening.
Did she just tell everyone she met she was a communist?! Did she want to die?
“Maybe I will. Homa and I have no prejudice towards anyone anyone except evildoers.”
“Right.” Homa finally said. “We– we hate those. Because of– communism?”
“Yep. Honest truth to Allah, Subhanahu wa-Ta’ala.” Kalika said in suddenly perfect fusha.
Homa felt more ridiculous than she had since the last time she felt utterly ridiculous.
Such moments seemed to transpire with increasing frequency.
“Mashallah! It is the first time I’ve ever set a table for communists, and also communists who know of our religion too. I’ll always remember this day.” Baran said excitedly.
Perhaps Baran was just more innocent than Homa would let herself believe.
Or maybe she did not really know what a communist was.
“If you don’t mind, I would like to take a look at the oxygen generator.” Kalika said.
“Oh, yes! Follow me. I am hoping it’s not actually broken.” Baran said.
“I’m handy with things like that.”
“Sareh is too. She’s quite reliable. Maybe she already scouted it out?”
With their course decided, the trio stepped outside of Baran’s house.
They immediately found Sareh with her back to one of Baran’s walls, waiting for them.
Her arms crossed, her head down, and a wan expression on her face.
“Feeling better?” Baran asked gently, stepping in front of Sareh and beaming.
Sareh averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for yelling. You don’t deserve that.”
“Maybe not– but I earned it, and I accept responsibility. I’ll always forgive you, Sareh.”
They briefly held hands, perhaps cognizant of their guests reading too much into it.
Homa had pretty much already deduced those two were something or other together.
Perhaps they might have only seemed like friends to someone with less life experience.
If the concept of homosexuality had already burrowed into one’s brain, it was easy to see.
Homa herself was a complicated girl with complicated feelings so she understood.
And it would have been quite a sight for Kalika of all people to be homophobic.
Not that anyone here knew that– of course they would not trust them on appearances alone.
Together, Sareh and Baran led Homa and Kalika from the house behind the masjid, off the paths wound around houses, and closer to the undeveloped, rocky surroundings of the village. They followed a series of exposed ventilation tubes that ran into the village. Near to the rock wall, they found a metal plate with a machine in a square housing that served as the epicenter of all the tubes they had been following. There were several bolted plates that could be removed and reaffixed and a few gauges that seemed to be stuck.
“This generator doesn’t actually generate oxygen, but it pumps it from an oxygen plant in the Wohnbezirk and out to the rest of the village.” Sareh said. “We just call it the oyxgen generator because its easier to say. We used to have some CO2 converters in the village but most of them broke, so this thing has been working harder than ever as our main source of oxygen. Then it breaks down every once in a while and gives us all a headache.”
“We’ve tried to have someone fix everything in the village, but there’s always a problem.” Baran said. “When we ask for major repairs from the Wohnbezirk, they say they have to special order parts because of our outdated systems, so little fixes are all they can do. In the past I sent mail to Councilwoman Rahima, who is a very kind Shimii politician in the core station, and she helped speed things up; but I don’t want to bother her too much.”
“If it’s just a pump, I don’t see how their complaints could hold water.” Kalika said.
“You have a good point there.” Sareh said. “Sometimes I just kick it and it works again.”
“Sareh, please stop kicking things. They need to be fixed properly.” Baran said.
“Hey! I do that too sometimes. I just barely ever have parts or tools.” Sareh complained.
Kalika kneeled down near the machine. She put her ear to it. Her brows furrowed.
“I don’t even hear it doing anything.” She said. She opened an accessible panel on one side that had a handle– it was the door to the circuit box, Homa thought.
Homa walked around with Kalika and peeked at several different parts of the machine. She did not know a lot about electrical circuits, but she agreed with Kalika that a machine that pumps oxygen should not be too hard too fix. Even the circuits or the sensors that determined the oxygen level should not have needed special order parts.
“None of the junction box LEDs are on. This doesn’t look too good.” Kalika said.
Baran sighed and raised one hand to her forehead, and Sareh closed her fists, agitated.
“It’s fine. I’ve got some Katarran friends who are handy with this kind of thing.”
Kalika stood back up, wiping dust and rock fragments from her knees and coat.
“You would really do that for us?” Sareh said. She looked at Kalika with narrowed eyes.
“Yes. It would in fact cost me almost nothing.” Kalika said. “I’ll get a friend down here to run a diagnostic, and then I’ll get a friend to find the right part, and then I’ll find a friend to go get the part I’ve got a lot of friends, and it pays to have them.” She winked at them.
Homa thought she knew who some of those friends might be.
She had heard Kalika mention that Olga, the bodyguard of Erika Kairos, could locate any object if she saw it once. There was also the chirpy and energetic Khloe Kuri, another of the Rostock’s special agents, who was allegedly good at sneaking around and stealing things. And as far as fixing things, the Brigand had no shortage of engineers and mechanics around– so in terms of friends they were well positioned to solve this particular problem.
“It’s not your responsibility, Ms. Loukia.” Baran said, shaking her head.
“Just call me Kalika. And like I said, I am not able to ignore something like this.”
“Because of your beliefs?” Baran said.
“Because it’s the decent thing to do. Because I refuse to ignore your pain. Is that enough?”
“Forgive my skepticism. It feels too good to be true.” Sareh had a conflicted expression.
Baran seemed to appraise Kalika and after looking her over finally accepted her assistance.
“It’s alright, Sareh. Kalika is a communist. I think she’s sincere.” She said.
“Huh? Oh– you mean like the NGO people. I guess that makes sense then.”
Homa stared, incredulous. What kind of NGOs did they have around here?
Sareh still seemed to be having trouble believing Kalika, but her body language relaxed.
Kalika patted her hand on the chassis of the oxygen generator with a big grin.
“Just let big sis Kalika take care of it. In return, let Homa eat a lot of meat at the festival.”
Homa’s tiny tail suddenly started to flutter, and she struggled to quickly make it stop.
“Um. Err. Yeah. We’ll– we’ll definitely repay your hospitality.” Homa said.
“Whether or not you assist us, we would still love to see you on Tishtar.” Baran said.
“Kalika, let me help with the repair job too. I can’t just accept charity.” Sareh said.
“A familiar form of stubborness. Fine– there will be something for you to do.” Kalika said.
Homa glanced sidelong at Kalika and Sareh but resolved to say nothing about that.
She was turning over imaginary kababs and kuftas in her mind, juicy and slick with fat.
After Descent, Year 967
Whispered sweet words and low, heavy groans of desire from an empty office.
Two shadows in a corner, a different corner every time, practiced, well-rehearsed.
They would not be found, not today. Today was an especially easy tryst.
Having come off a major victory in the council, everyone left early after the celebrations.
Leaving behind only the two party bosses, with what work was left, and what play was left.
Before Conny could say whatever was on her mind Rahima quieted her with a deep kiss.
Pushing her against the wall, her fingers slipping into Conny’s bell-bottomed pants.
Savoring the taste of booze, smoke and lipstick– things her religion denied her–
Things that she could nonetheless claim from her partner-in-crime.
Rahima almost lifted Conny against the corner, pushing herself as close as she could.
Looming over the shorter elf, having to bend to take her due to the difference in size.
Conny raised her hands to Rahima’s chest and gently pushed her back.
Until her tongue parted from Conny’s lips, a slick string tying them together still.
“Mm. Relax. Nobody is here.” Rahima said.
There was a grin on her face, hungry and confident, savoring what she had claimed.
Rahima had grown in the intervening years. Ambitious, self-assured, and powerful.
At least, compared to what she once was– it was quite a leap.
“It’s not that. Ugh. Everything– everything is all wrong now.”
Conny had a demure expression. Her hands remained on Rahima, creating a bit of space.
When Rahima tried to get close those hands would not push but would keep her separated.
“Conny, after all we’ve fooled around, you can’t be having regrets now.”
“It’s not that, Rahima. I wish it was only that. I wish this was just about the Council.”
Rahima’s eyes opened wide. “Conny, what happened? Tell me.”
She laid her hands on Conny’s shoulders. Conny could not meet her eyes.
Their heartbeats both accelerated, and the heat of their passions became a heat of anxiety.
Rahima wracked her brain. Everything was supposed to have gone perfectly.
They had finally achieved a long-term goal– extending suffrage to the Shimii Wohnbezirk.
With this and Rahima’s support from the Shimii, they would be an undeniable force in the politics of Aachen, practically impossible to dislodge in the local elections. As long as Rahima postured as a liberal and non-demoninational Shimii and treaded the lines between radical and moderate as she treaded between Rashidun and Mahdist, she could look forward to a practically secured seat in the Council. It would enable the Rhinea Feminist Party to throw their weight around and push more of their agenda on the Liberals.
And of course, Conny, her mentor, her lover, the one who pulled her up from darkness–
Of course, she would be with her every step of the way. Of course. She had to be there.
“Rahima, I’ve been served a motion of Censure from the Reichstag. My career is over.”
Hearing those words, Rahima’s heart sank.
It was like someone had twisted a vise inside her chest and cleaved her guts in half.
Shaking fingers clutched Conny’s narrow shoulders. Both of them wept.
“How? For what purpose? That can’t be possible. We’re local politicians!” Rahima said.
“I went too far with the anti-slavery stuff. They’re calling me a communist.” Conny said.
“But you’re not a communist! That doesn’t matter! You can resist this, Conny!”
Conny finally met Rahima’s eyes. Rahima felt her heart jump again from the contact.
That fondness– a love within that gaze that Rahima hardly even knew had existed.
There was such admiration and gentle support from that simple meeting of the eyes.
“The more I fight it, the more it will drag your good name down too Rahima. They will bring up my sister, and the Union, call me a spy, run inquiries crawling into every part of my life. They will find out about us. They will ruin you too. I don’t need to resign but I will– because you’re more important than me, Rahima. More important than us. You represent a possibility I can’t achieve here. Your people need you. I resign, all of it stops, and you keep rising.”
“No.” Rahima said. “I can’t accept this. I can’t accept this, Conny. We are in it together.”
Conny averted her eyes again and seemed to speak past Rahima.
“Herta Kleyn of the Progressive Party has agreed for you to caucus with them.”
“What? You’re dissolving the party?” Rahima said. It was one blow after another.
Conny continued to speak without looking at her and Rahima continued to spiral.
“You’ll be a mainstream Liberal now. Your Council seat will remain secure. Even with me gone the Liberals will retain a majority. Don’t involve yourself in the special election. Let it go.”
“Conny don’t do this to me!” Rahima shouted. “Don’t do this to me! How can I–?”
“Rahima. I love you. Thank you for all these years. Don’t ever let them stop you, okay?”
Conny reached up to touch Rahima’s cheek, moving her hair from over the side of her face.
Rahima’s own hand reached up, and grabbed Conny’s and pressed it tight against herself.
Feeling as if she might never feel a hand that soft and that close ever again.
Like Conny would dissolve into a mound of ash right in front of her.
What had she done wrong? Was this God’s punishment for her indiscretions?
Had she not been modest enough? Had she not been sincere? Why was this happening?
“There’s nothing more to say Rahima. This was never going to be able to last forever– but I will keep rooting for you. You’re extremely strong. You’re stronger than me. I just had the money to rent an office and print things. You came up from nothing. You did all this work– and look where you are. You are proof there is something worth fighting for here. Someday all Shimii will believe in that. Don’t throw that way for me, Rahima. For anyone.”
Weeping, Rahima pressed the hand tighter against her face. She did not want to let go.
“I don’t want to lose you. I wouldn’t have known what to do without you.”
Conny seemed like she truly did not know what to say.
For minutes, she seemed partway between leaving and staying.
Watching Rahima cry in front of her face; crying herself, wiping the tears, crying again.
She hesitated. Then she kissed Rahima back. Quicker than she had been kissed.
But this time without hesitation or distance.
“Rahima. Then– get so strong nobody can deny your claim on me, despite everything.”
A kiss as fleeting as a passing breeze–
with incredible alacrity, Conny slipped out from under Rahima’s arms and ran away.
There one second and gone the next as if she had never met that dazzling, vibrant elf.
Leaving Rahima with the suddeness of that departure, holding and staring at an empty wall.
Shaking, weeping, with the cruel sweetness of that final kiss on her lips.
Her legs buckled. Rahima fell to the floor. Screaming into the ground.
For all of the night she remained huddled in that corner, in pain like she had been set alight.
Sometime in the twilight, between colors of dusk and dawn and every possible emotion–
Rahima stood back up. She fixed her shirt and blazer, washed her face, and left the office.
Head and heart empty save for the purpose that remained to animate her.
Even if Conny did not need her anymore– the Shimii needed her.
Her work was not complete; without Conny that was all she had left.
After Descent, Year 979
“This house used to belong a small family. They had teen boys. But they renounced Mahdism and left the village so they could live in the bigger part of the town. Since then, I’ve kept this place as a little guest house. We have a TV, the lights work, there’s a mattress there with blankets. Behind the curtain, the little door that looks like a closet is actually the bathroom. Oh! And I always try to keep some long-lasting snacks and water in the fridge too.”
Baran bent down to her knees to open the small fridge to show them the goods.
A small jug of water and some assorted nuts and candied dates.
“Anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask. You’re my honored guests.” Baran said.
“I am quite grateful. Hopefully I will have good news for you tomorrow.” Kalika said.
Baran put her hand to her chest again and bid farewell, leaving Kalika and Homa alone.
Homa wandered over to the television, flicked it on and sat down on the old mattress.
At first with a neutral expression, tired from the day, depressed by her surroundings–
Then immediately, absolutely furious at the image of the blond woman on the screen–
“Nasser!” She shouted, despite herself, it had to come out, she was surprised and livid.
Vesna Nasser– that fiend who had robbed her of everything.
Homa had never seen this woman in the flesh, but she knew, she knew that was her.
Standing in uniform, swaying her tail and smiling like nothing had happened.
Her cold, dead heart untouched with an ounce of guilt for what she had done.
While Homa scurried in holes, Nasser was in that high tower, on regional television!
Unspeaking, but firm, confident, even smug. Homa practically gritted her teeth in anger.
Beside Nasser was the actual speaker for the program, amid a speech on a podium.
Dressed in that foul black uniform with the most medals and armbands of anyone Homa had ever seen. Ridiculous pink and blue hair, her speech eloquent and intensely confident for what she was saying, with inflections of passion and grandiosity punctuating certain words–
“…it has been only mere months since Rhinea embarked on the Revolution of National Awakening. Already, the Party-State is being dilligently constructed. All national socialists are joining as a single force under the Party-State. Together we deliver swift punishment to the liberals and reactionaries who opposed the Nation’s Destiny and tried to drag the national proletariat to the shadow of their former ignorance. Even now, the cultists of those dead ideas plot in the corners, trying to rewind our chosen future. They will find their reckoning soon. National Socialism is an idea that cannot be contained any longer! National Socialism is modernity! Our Volk has had enough of Liberal divisions and Reactionary elitism! We will bow neither to the man on the ballot nor to the man with the crown and scepter! The Party-State will unite the people, protect them, and enrich the Nation! Through blood and labor, the Volksgemeinschaft will be nurtured, and the national peoples unleashed! These are no longer things which can be resisted! The many will become one under the nation! One people, one nation, one party-state! With our blood and labor! This is Destiny–!”
Homa sat fuming as the speech progressed further, until Kalika finally swiped her finger across Violet Lehner’s face. She disappeared and a Shimii clerical channel took her place.
“Kalika, what is everyone else on the ships doing while we’re out here?” Homa asked.
Kalika sighed. She must have been able to tell how frustrated Homa was.
But Homa was not in a mood to care about her tone or appearances anymore.
“A lot of things, Homa– it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Right now, the crew is preparing for the United Front negotations.” Kalika said. “It might not seem that way, but we are helping.”
“Are we any closer to getting revenge on those Volkisch bastards?” Homa shouted.
“Quiet! Look, you’ll need to defer your revenge. We don’t expect things to be so simple as shaking hands and agreeing to fight the Volkisch– every group has an agenda, and they will push their own way of doing things.” Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa and patted her back. Homa did not feel appreciative of the support in her current state– but she also did not want Kalika to stop touching her. That warmth on her back kept her from crying.
“Why wouldn’t it be as simple as shaking hands, and agreeing to fight the Volkisch?”
Homa felt such a boiling-over frustration with everything around her.
Looking back at everything that happened, the Volkisch Movement was clearly the enemy.
So why could they not set aside everything and fight them, and discuss the rest later?
“Homa, people need concrete structure and leadership. They can’t just go out and fight unprepared.” Kalika said. “Three huge organizations coming together will have to work out priorities, supplies, targets, and delegate intelligence and action work. Furthermore, these are three political organizations, who will need to sway Eisental’s people to their side as collaborators, allies and recruits– so they need to decide on a message, too.”
Homa grunted. She turned a disgruntled look at the clerics on the screen instead of Kalika.
“Homa, our job is to support the Volksarmee’s effort by carrying out our mission. And our mission is to be down here.” Kalika said. Her patting on Homa’s back grew a bit more vigorous. “It might not seem like we are doing anything, but getting support from the Shimii here is something no one else is doing. The social democrats and the anarchists are not making efforts to touch base with disenfranchised peoples. We have eyes, your eyes, my eyes, where they don’t. That does matter; please just work with me here, ok?”
“Fine. It’s not like I can do anything else. I am just your helpless little orbiter.”
She laid down on her side, putting her back to Kalika with a disgruntled noise.
“Homa, it’s not like– ugh.” She could feel Kalika moving behind her. To lie down too.
For a moment, Kalika did not finish her sentence. She sounded a bit exasperated.
Homa felt both nervous that she had angered her, but also had a disgusting satisfaction too.
Had she finally needled this woman enough, who had no reason to care for her–?
A sigh. “Homa. We’ll have some big days ahead. Get some rest. You’ll feel better.”
Her voice was surprisingly gentle– none of the expected fury, no lashing out.
For a moment, Homa felt so ashamed of herself that she might have burst out crying.
She hated herself and her thoughts and her ugly, stupid little soul so much. So intensely.
If she was not so tired, and did not drift off to sleep, she would have beaten her own head.
But she did drift off to a dreamless sleep. A sleep like a comfortable shadow engulfing her.
Until that shadow and its attendant silence were suddenly parted by a scream.
In the near-total darkness of the room Homa shot upright from where she had lain.
Her head turned immediately to face the doorway and the swaying curtain to the outside.
When she tried to stand she felt a hand move to stop her.
“Homa, stay here!”
From her side, Kalika darted to her feet and ran out of the house.
Parting the curtain, a glint in the steel of her sword as it sprang from the handle.
Heedless of the warning, Homa scrambled to her feet and ran right after.
When she got outside, the shouting was far clearer–
“No! Stop it! Why are you doing this?”
“Shut up bitch!”
There was a man’s voice– familiar–
Baran crying out–
Homa’s running steps practically thundered on the rough floor.
She crossed the side of the masjid and caught sight of several figures on the Tishtar stage partially illuminated by burning flares thrown onto the middle of the street.
Baran on the edge of the stage, weeping, three people with face coverings and long clubs or truncheons in their hands. Beating at the beautiful Taiza that had been erected on the stage with a hellish glee. Between Baran’s shouting and sobs there was their laughter and jeering as they destroyed the villager’s art. They taunted Baran as they struck the object.
“We won’t let you Mahdists hold your evil rituals!”
“Stop it! That’s enough, aren’t you satisfied?”
“I said shut up!”
One of the boys swung at Baran, striking her leg and knocking her off the stage–
Into Kalika’s arms, catching her and setting her down roughly.
Jumping up onto the stage.
Homa was not far behind, she saw Baran fall and dropped quickly near her, to support her.
Up on the stage the assailants realized instantly what they were dealing with.
They ceased beating the Taiza to pieces and laughing at the act. They stopped to stare.
In the silence they left–
Kalika’s vibroblade buzzed and whirred audible with killing power.
She said nothing as she approached, her wildly furious eyes glowing in the flare-light–
“I– I told you I’d fucking kill you–!”
One of the men threw himself forward, screaming, and he swung,
Kalika caught the blow with her bare forearm, battering his arm aside,
blade splitting air with a low whistle as it flew–
“Please don’t kill them!”
Baran cried out, tears in her eyes, caught in Homa’s bewildered grasp.
Kalika held her blow.
She sliced across the chest of her attacker, blood running slick on the edge of her sword.
Leaving a shallow cut across the man’s chest where his guts might have otherwise flowed.
He stumbled back onto the stage, dropped his club, screaming, begging,
From behind Homa a gunshot rang out.
There was a brief spark as it struck one of the assailants on his club.
Sending a finger flying into the air and the weapon rolling down the stage.
Sareh ran to Homa’s side with a pistol in her hand, preparing to shoot again–
And stopped as Baran’s hands reached up to her, pleading silently.
Lika Kalika, Sareh stopped her retaliation and watched as the assailants fled.
Bloodied, crying, but still throwing curses borne out of their hatred.
“If you cross that gate again you’ll leave in a bag!”
Kalika shouted after them, at the top of her lungs, an anger in her voice that was chilling.
Holding the stricken Baran in her arms, with Sareh standing dumbstruck beside them.
Homa felt completely detached from reality. Her skin was clammy. Every muscle shaking.
“Stupid, worthless bastards.” Kalika said to no one. Her sword hand was shaking.
Sareh finally put down her arms, with which she had been aiming her pistol the whole time.
She put the weapon into her coat and kneeled down and took Baran from Homa.
Into her arms, holding her tightly. Baran was crying. Sareh was mumbling, weeping too.
“I’m so stupid. Why did I go to sleep? I should’ve known they would do something!”
Baran reached up to Sareh’s face, gesturing for her to come close.
They put their foreheads to each other and touched noses, crying together.
Behind all of them, a few villagers began to emerge from the back streets.
Homa’s eyes were fixed on Kalika, glowing red on the stage amid the sparks of a flare.
Her hand remaining on her sword, her eyes on the gates, gritting her teeth.
Clutching the handle.
Not knowing what to do, Homa climbed up on the stage.
Standing side by side with Kalika amid the light of the still-burning flares,
and the pieces of the ruined Tazia behind them.
“Kalika. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do anything–”
Suddenly, Kalika turned to Homa. She flicked her wrist, snapping her blade folded again.
She reached out and took Homa’s clenched fist, opening her fingers.
Then on that cold, shaking, helpless hand, Kalika laid–
“Don’t make me regret this, Homa.”
A light, synthestitched pistol, materially light but heavy with deadly potential.
She had entrusted Homa with a lethal weapon, a killing weapon, just like her own.
Homa stared at it and back at Kalika and felt like she would sink into the earth with shame.
In her mind she had done nothing to earn this. Nothing but lash out and complain.
But she accepted it. She felt that to do otherwise would have squandered everything.
With her hands still shaking, she put the gun into her coat. She said nothing.
She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t understand anything she was seeing and feeling.
“You’re not helpless anymore, Homa. I trust you will make good judgments.”
Kalika’s voice sounded, for the first time Homa had ever heard– openly nervous.
After Descent, Year 978
Rahima and Herta Kleyn convened alone in one of the rear storage areas of the Aachen Council’s Assembly Hall. Underneath the debate floor where policy fought for its life, the two of them stood over a disused desk in a dusty corner, their faces half-shadowed in the dim light of a sputtering LED cluster. On the desk, there was a portable computer with an open digital letter with official digital letterhead, demanding confirmation of receipt.
From the collective body of the Rhinean Reichstag.
To Governor-Elect of Aachen Rahima Jašarević.
“Interfering in our local politics again.” Rahima grunted.
“I’m afraid so.” Herta said. “But this is not just a party insider squabble, Rahima. The Liberal-Proggressives and the Conservatives all passed it in the special session. Only the Nationalists abstained from the process. Our folks caved, Rahima, but so far the contents are not public. They want you to respond discretly and avoid a bigger scandal. I advise you should.”
Rahima closed her fists with anger, staring impotently at the filigreed letter on the screen.
“Why should I abide by this?” She said.
Herta sighed. They had worked together long enough now that she knew Rahima’s moods.
Still her voice remained collected and calm.
“Unless you resign from the governorship they will practically crawl down our throats, Rahima. They are saying they will turn up the Progressive party’s ‘ties to Kamma, piracy, communism and foreign nations’ . The Liberal-Progressives cannot afford this.”
“So what if they investigate? We have no such ties!”
“We do technically have ties to Kamma. Through you, Rahima.”
Rahima felt a shudder hearing the implication and shot a vicious glare at Herta.
“I know you are not seeing her. I know! I trust you. But the Reichstag will not care.”
“Kamma is just an NGO! They distribute lunchboxes and blankets! They aren’t radicals!”
Herta shut her eyes and shook her head.
“Rahima, you know as well as any of us that the substance of this threat does not matter. It does not matter whether they can turn up anything. It does not matter whether you fight it. You are not getting a fair trial here. By making the threat, they are implicitly saying they will turn up something– they will put on a show to damage our credibility. Your credibility and that of the main party. Right now, the Progressive-Liberal coalition is facing a hard fight against the Conservatives and Nationalists in the upcoming elections. The Heidemman bloc supported this motion in order to appeal to moderates and to seem reasonable.”
There was nothing Rahima could say in return because what she wanted to do was scream.
For years– years!– she had fought in the Council, debated and defeated Imbrians on the merits. She had passed successful bills, and not just her projects for the Shimii. She had fought like hell for a Progressive agenda. She had compromised, she had toed the lines.
All of the Aachen Liberal Party had gotten behind her for the Governorship.
Aachen’s people cast their votes! She had won the Liberals an important governorship!
Rahima had won them the Shimii! She was turning them into Liberal voters!
None of it mattered. Her local successes were nothing to the Reichstag Liberals.
They were focused solely on the presidential battle next year and nothing else.
On those two Imbrian men whom the nation now revolved around. Not any Shimii.
Sacrificing her to look more moderate and serious. To show they were not radicals.
“There is still a shot, Rahima. You don’t have to give up your dreams.” Herta said.
“And what is our shot, Herta.” Rahima replied, her voice turning slowly into a growl.
Herta started staring directly at Rahima’s darkening expression with a wan little smile of her own. “The motion specified the Governor-Electship– we can comply and still retain your Council seat. I will replace you as Governor, and we will salvage our local slate. After Ossof Heidemman is elected next year, things will calm down. You’ll be able to run again.”
Rahima looked at Herta dead in the eyes. She could hardly believe this naivety from her.
“What happens if Adam Lehner defeats Ossof Heidemman?” She said gravely.
Herta’s expression grew concerned. “That won’t happen Rahima. I know we’ll win.”
Rahima grunted. Who was this ‘we’? Was Rahima now included in Heidemman’s circle?
“Herta, look at how dirty they are playing me– do you think Adam Lehner is above that?”
Herta turned around and paced toward the opposite wall with a heavy breath.
As if she did not want to meet Rahima’s eyes while speaking her next words.
“Rahima, I am truly sorry. But you are still here and have responsibilities. Don’t squander what we have built. I taught you to be pragmatic. You have decades in politics still. You’ve opened a path for other Shimii to follow. You must remain in the council, for them.”
Rahima threw her hands up in fury. “So, what–? I was only a path for others to follow?!”
She gritted her teeth. What about the path she had been treading so tirelessly all this time?!
How could it be that after all this struggle she was relegated to holding open a door?!
What did this say to the Shimii?
You can become a local councilwoman who will tidy up things in your ghetto and that is it? You will never even reach the height of these pitiful confines? All of these games that she played, not even able to get her kin out of the fucking ground– and no amount of polite words saved her when the hatchets came out. The Liberals simply abandoned her.
Was all of that for nothing? All of her sacrifice? All of her pain?
Herta had no answer. Nobody did.
So one more time, Rahima toed the line and compromised for the Liberal-Progressives.
As if she had anything left to compromise.
After Descent, Year 979
On the morning after the attack, Homa stood with several dozen Shimii around the stage.
Ears folded and tails down, examing from afar what remained of the intricate display.
Smashed pieces in a heap, colorful debris only recognizeable if one saw the complete thing.
Enough of it remained to mourn over the whole.
There were several villagers with their heads hung low or shaking, covering their mouths, crying for the smashed Taiza. They looked from afar, helpless. There were a few older men, but most of the people coming out of the shabby little houses and the few bigger business buildings to look, were women and kids, and the kids looked to be mainly girls.
Baran had been right– Homa wondered if the men last night were–
She immediately stopped her train of thought. She felt so angry about everything.
In her coat, the pistol Kalika had given her weighed down her pocket like a stone.
Suddenly the villagers turned to face the masjid.
Out from it, Baran, Sareh and an older, slightly more formidable man walked out.
Homa noticed immediately that Baran was walking with a stick to support herself.
Upon seeing this, several of the women stepped forward to her, stroked her hair and her shoulders. Many of the women started crying fresh tears over her injury, the heavily bruised and bloodied ankle quite visible through Baran’s sandals. They copiously recited Fusha prayers for her and begged God’s mercy and safety and for God to seek answers from the criminals for this. That seemed to be the prevailing question among the villagers–
why inflict such pointless cruelty?
Even though they all knew the answer, deep down in their hearts, but nobody wanted it.
That answer which was too painful to consider and too impossible for them to resolve.
Homa considered it and turned it over so thoroughly it lit her heart ablaze with wrath.
“Homa! Are you alright?”
Baran called out to her and walked out from between all the aunties and teen girls.
Knowing how she felt when she was using crutches, Homa did not try to tell Baran to slow down or not to come forward. Such little kindnesses just bothered Homa and made her feel inept when she was the one who could not move well. She stood where she was, suddenly the center of attention in the middle of everyone in the village. It felt like there were not just a few dozen people around now but thousands in the pitted streets.
“Everyone, this is Homa Messhud! She helped me last night! Please pray for her too!”
Baran stood by Homa and put a hand on her shoulder, with a big smile.
Confused eyes turned to warm smiles at Homa, in an instant. Baran’s word was all it took.
They really loved her– Homa felt like everyone in the village cared about Baran a lot.
Homa felt she had not done anything deserving of praise but did not deny Baran.
Even though they were all heaping praise and prayers on a fake surname.
There was no helping it– it’s what Homa had to endure for her mission.
Compared to what the villagers had to go through this was nothing.
After that declaration, Sareh also walked up. She reached out to Homa.
They shook hands together, and Sarah also patted Homa on the shoulder.
“Homa, thank you, truly. Baran could have been killed– I’m sorry I wasn’t any help.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Sareh. Please.” Baran said gently, squeezing Sareh’s hand.
“I know. I’ll try not to.” Sareh said. “Where is Kalika, Homa? She was incredible.”
“Asleep.” Homa said. “I didn’t want to wake her– that situation was really rough on her.”
After they drove off the attackers the night before, everyone slowly dispersed.
It was as if they were caught in a delirium, and nobody knew what to do in the moment.
Sareh took Baran into her home. She must have administered first-aid.
Homa knew that Kalika had not gotten any sleep. She had remained on-guard all night.
“Homa, let me introduce you– this is Imam Saman al-Qoms.” Baran said.
From behind the girls, the man who had walked out with them approached Homa.
He stopped several steps short of her and put his hand on his chest with a smile.
“As-Salamu Alaykum. God sees all praiseworthy deeds. Thank you dearly, Homa Messhud.”
Imam al-Qoms was a sturdy older man, definitely older than Leija would have been. He dressed perhaps the most appropriately, to the typical picture of a Shimii man, than anyone Homa had seen around Aachen so far. He had a blue Tagiyah cap, with holes for his ears, and very short hair. He had a simple, long, covering and loose robe the same blue as the cap and wore glasses and sandals. A simple man, like a Shimii educator and prayer leader ought to be.
After the introductions, the Imam, Baran and Sareh walked up to the stage. Sareh and Homa helped Baran make the short hop up onto the stage. But Baran surprised them by immediately and without assistance dropping down beside the shattered remains of the Taiza, flinching from the pain in her ankle as she sat beside it, and collected the pieces.
Despite everything she still smiled.
“Sareh, we can put it back together! Most of the pieces are pretty big. We’ll repaint it too!”
Sareh looked down at her partner on the ground, sighed, and sat down next to her.
Quietly, Imam al-Qoms also sat opposite the girls, collecting more pieces of the Taiza.
Homa stood off to the side. She was a stranger to all of this; it held no significance for her.
Everyone in town seemed invested in this presentation and the traditions behind it.
All Homa could focus on was the fact that someone violated their safety to destroy it.
She did not hold the dearness they all had for this– she could not.
To her this was just a thing– but it was a thing that inspired brutality against them.
She wished she could understand. Both their love for it; and the hatred that it drew.
Maybe if she could understand she would have an answer for herself, that she could bear.
But she did not– in that moment she felt more like an Imbrian than she ever had.
Just some fool watching from the sidelines, shamefully able to leave if things got too ugly.
Why did this have to happen? Homa felt that anger swelling in her heart again.
All of them were thrown in a hole out of sight of the Imbrians in the Core Station.
And their response was to recreate all the violence of their past, but here, in the hole?
It was so senseless she wanted to scream.
A gloved hand laid upon her shoulder, heavy and a little cold, but familiar.
Without turning around, Homa laid her own hand over Kalika’s.
“Are you okay?” Kalika asked, standing on the stage beside Homa.
Behind them, the villagers had begun to return to their homes and businesses.
All of the younger girls followed some of the aunties into the masjid.
Homa looked around for a moment before giving her answer. “Kind of not.” She said.
They spoke together in whispers at the edge of the stage.
“Is it your heart or your head?” Kalika asked.
“I’m not hurt or anything. It’s just depressing. I don’t know why they would do this.”
“Because it’s what they are steeped in– it is their value system.” Kalika said. “Out in the town, our friendly little villagers, and their customs, are seen as dangerous to the–”
Homa sighed bitterly. “I– I don’t need you to answer, Kalika. Or– well– not like that.”
“I understand.” Kalika said gently. “Keep a keen eye out and decide for yourself then.”
She patted Homa on the shoulder and walked past her to Baran and Sareh.
Sareh helped Baran to stand up from the floor so they could greet Kalika.
“You saved my life, Kalika Loukia. I can’t thank you enough.” Baran said.
Baran offered her hands and Kalika held them. Sareh then offered her a handshake.
“Yes, thank you. I styled myself as the protector of this village– and I–” Sareh began–
“You saved Homa and I, remember? You’re doing what you can.” Kalika reassured her.
“I don’t feel like you needed my saving.” Sareh said. Still ashamed of herself.
“No, for you and I, fighting is completely different.” Kalika said. “It is easier to stand in front of someone and fight when you are not tied down to anything. That requires no conviction. It is more difficult to fight when you might be endangering yourself or your kin. Most people would choose to keep their heads down in that situation. You had the courage not to.”
“Thank you. I’ll try to remind myself of that.” Sareh said. Baran comforted her.
“If you need any crafts supplies, I might be able to help with that too.” Kalika said. “I’ll be contacting my friends soon to get things moving. Homa is here to help if you need a body.”
Homa bristled slightly at being referred to ‘for her body.’
“You’ve done so much; I don’t want to ask for even more. Please understand.” Baran said. “We can put this back together. We’ll glue it and then repaint it in a way that can make the cracks stand out less. I’m sure we can do that. For things like this I would prefer we work with what we have. It is part of the story of the festival now, for better or worse.”
Homa thought in that moment, Baran sounded very wise, as sad as it was.
“But. There is something else that troubles me.” Baran said.
“I think I know what you mean.” Sareh said, looking down at Baran’s ankle.
“Go on. I want to help.” Kalika said.
Baran suddenly turned from Kalika to Homa, who was caught off guard by the attention.
“Homa, do you know how to dance? Did your mother ever teach you?” Baran asked.
“Huh? Dancing?” Homa’s nerves instantly fried. “No way, no– I’m too clumsy!”
She waved her hands defensively. If she had to go up on stage she would die.
Plus she imagined the kind of outfit dancers wore– flashing back to Madame Arabie–
Baran slumped, clearly disheartened. “Your body looked like you might’ve been a dancer.”
“Really?” Now Homa was suddenly interested again. “I guess I look pretty athletic huh?”
Sighing, Kalika waved her hands between Baran and Homa. “Leave her be– I’ll do it.”
“Oh!” “Huh?” “REALLY?”
Baran, Sareh and Homa responded at once, wagging their ears with surprise at Kalika.
“I spent years living with Shimii.” Kalika said. “Those folks had their own local festivities, but I learned all kinds of traditional arts including dances. With Baran’s help I can absolutely learn the moves she was meant to perform for the festival. That’s the issue, right?”
“Yes, ever since I was a teenager I danced whenever we could hold Tishtar.” Baran said. “Everybody in the village looks forward to it! Sareh plays the music and I dance.”
Sareh put her hands behind her head and acted casual, as if she did not want recognition.
“We’ll find time for you to coach me.” Kalika said. “Then I’ll dance on the big day.”
It was an idea that captured Homa completely and immediately.
There were a dozen things put into her head. She wondered whether Kalika might be perceived as too old to dance in Baran’s place, but she did not voice this dangerous rumination, for fear of making an eternal enemy out of her most cherished ally. Another dangerous thought that came to her unbidden was that it might have been thought of as silly for a Katarran to perform traditional Shimii dance at a Mahdist festival. That one, too, had to be shelved very quickly. However, one observation of value did arise– Homa felt she finally understood Kalika’s real and unspoken motivation for helping the villagers.
Perhaps she was getting a rare taste of that feeling she so cherished– community.
With that in mind, Homa finally put on as much of a smile as she could muster.
That– and her third dangerous thought. Seeing Kalika in a traditional dancing garb.
Such outfits varied greatly– but what if Kalika wore something as sexy as Madame Arabie?
Those outfits were embellished versions of traditional Shimii wear– for sex appeal.
In a sense, they were even more lewd than having seen Kalika in the nude before–
“You’re finally smiling Homa. I don’t dare ask what has come over you.” Kalika said.
Homa visibly snapped out of her reverie and put her hands in her coat’s outer pockets.
Averting her gaze and not answering the question. But still grinning a little bit.
Baran meanwhile was also smiling wider and brighter and more openly than ever.
“Kalika, Homa, you are life savers! This will be the greatest Tishtar ever, I promise you!”
“I can’t wait.” Kalika said. She seemed to be soaking in the girls’ enthusiasm.
“I’m glad to see everyone in good spirits. But Shaykhah, it seems you have company.”
Imam al-Qoms spoke up again– Shaykhah must have been in reference to Baran.
He pointed to the gate, where a woman walked in with small wheeled drone following her.
Homa could tell from her pointy, long ears and her very pale and shiny blue hair that she was an elf; such vibrant hair colors difficult to find naturally in anyone but an elf. Her figure was thin and she was pretty short in stature, with fair skin that had a very, very slightly golden tone. Her hair was collected into two tails dropping down her back. She dressed in an open white blazer coat with what looked like a striking blue tasseled bra top underneath, cut off above the belly, and bell-bottomed pants. Homa hardly ever saw anyone dress so flashy.
Everyone was watching as the woman calmly crossed into the village. There was a small flag hoisted from a pole on the back of the drone’s boxy chassis. The drone seemed like it might have contained cargo, its insides rattling a bit. The flag had a half-white, half-black, vaguely diamond-like emblem made up of knotted lines over a bright blue background.
All of the village onlookers seemed excited by the new arrival.
Homa saw them looking at the flag. Did they recognize it?
“Oh, she’s from the NGO! What excellent timing– let’s go greet her!” Baran said.
As the elven woman approached the stage, she waved at the group with a carefree smile.
“Hello, hello! Is this a bad time? I’m Conny Lettiere. I’m with the NGO Kamma.”
After Descent, Year 979
On the table laid a portable computer with a digital letterhead begging confirmation.
Beside the portable was an unopened plastic box. Lit only by the screen of the portable.
And in a dark corner behind the desk was Rahima Jašarević. Legs curled against her chest.
No longer weeping– she had not wept for a very long time. For years now she had been smothering the softness deep in her soul and trying to forge it into steel. Nevertheless, whenever she needed to think, she found hiding behind the desk helped her do so. As long as nobody saw her in this childish circumstance she could find comfort in it.
It made her feel less– surveilled.
Ever since that night, where she spent hours and hours seething behind her desk.
On that night, she ceased to be able to cope in the ways she had done before.
Sometimes she thought back to that night, and to the nights preceding it.
When she arrived at Aachen she was barely an adult. So much time had passed.
In her mind she remembered the things the immigration officer told her and laughed.
Look at what I’ve become, would you think I am decent now or just a lowlife?
She remembered the sailor, too, who brought her to Aachen.
Would he regret it? Had she done something stupid and indecent now, in his mind?
Going into politics; giving all her spirit to budge the status quo even a centimeter.
What did they all think now? Was she upstanding now? Was she respectable?
She had always been young for politics. She had liked to think that gave her an edge.
That youth had its own vibrancy and power. Perhaps it did once.
Now, however, it was completely lost.
Having nothing but her experience of time and in that sense youth relative to the mean was worthless, and relative to itself even more so. She was alone. Simultaneously too old for assistance and too young for pity. No mentors she could trust to ask for counsel. No peers to stand beside her during her tribulations. She was the mentor, and without peer. As she grew older, the more and more people she left behind and replaced with only herself. It was so unfair– she had never wanted to abandon anyone nor for anyone to abandon her.
Uniquely positioned; uniquely alone. The only Shimii councilwoman.
Once, the only Shimii governor.
Since she arrived at Aachen, she gained so much, and yet lost so much.
She did not know where the scales came to rest in the end.
All she knew is that when she needed someone, now, there was no one around her.
Was this her punishment? Had she done wrong?
Was it hubris to ever have any hope? Was it heresy to follow her dreams?
At first all she wanted was to help Conny– then she slowly found her own dreams.
Those dreams, her pursuit of something, anything, for her kin living beneath her.
So no one else would have to lose their whole families and homes.
So no one else would have to bear the slow destruction they were subjected to.
No more name changes, no more deportations, no more deprivation–
Was that paradigm so hopelessly ordained? Was even God against them?
That pursuit of power and those grand intentions for it had destroyed everything she held personally dear– and for what? Shimii could cast their ballots for a slate of Imbrians and Rahima to judge their lives from on high. Again, and again, but now from the masjid in the Wohnbezirk. Never from anywhere else. Even Rahima, symbollically, voted there.
They always voted for her. She was all that they had now. That was all that changed.
Was it her fault? That she became a tool of their callous power?
Her heart tightened with a growing anger.
No– she was just doing what she could. She was doing what one woman could do.
It was the Imbrians, at each turn. It was them. It was their fault!
So deathly afraid of being the equals of anyone. They fought her at every step.
That was the cruelest irony of everything. They raised her up, they broke her down–
–and they would face the rip-current, thrashing in the waters they themselves filled.
In that instant there was only one foreseeable thing that she could do.
Only one Destiny.
Rahima shot to a stand with a sudden fervor, raising her arms and practically clawing the desk on her way to her feet. She took up the portable from the desk and without thinking it, without feeling, with her breath in her chest and her heart motionless, skin tingling, face sweating. Her finger struck the confirmation, the knife she would plunge into Aachen.
There was an instant of recognition. The portable slipped from her fingers back onto her desk. Her heart started thundering. Ragged, rasping breaths of a woman choking.
Tears welled up in her eyes. She slumped over the desk, the moment of fury passed.
Hands raised over her face, brushing salt from her eyes that only drew more tears.
She wanted to scream, but no one would hear her.
She wanted to beg for mercy she ill deserved.
On the desk, the box taunted her.
You are the one, it jeered, who will be judged for your wickedness now.
You are the one who has crossed the line now.
Rahima picked it up, overturned it. The lid fell off, and inside were a pair of armbands.
For a moment, she stared at them. Then she affixed them to her arm.
Black Sun. Hooked Cross. Red, white, black.
Her discarded portable lit up again, blue light crossing the desk. Rahima righted the object.
There was a call– she routed it to audio and tried to calm her voice.
“We have received the confirmation. I assume you are ready and willing?”
A woman’s voice, courteous, and perhaps, even excited for what was to come.
“Yes. I will prepare the lists. Doubtless you’ll have additions.” Rahima said.
Her voice left her lips as it always did. Commanding, confident. Like on the debate floor.
She knew what she had to do. She knew what she agreed to.
“You have the lay of the land here– we will trust and support you.”
There was a request to turn the audio call to a visual call. Rahima denied it on her screen.
“We will need to be thorough. Hold your hand until your preparations are ironclad.”
“Indeed. Do not fear. The Special Detachment will protect you with our lives.”
There was room for neither shouting nor tears. She had cried for herself all that she could.
Rahima had exhausted all of the means at her disposal. She had tried to work righteously.
Every way that one woman could hold on her shoulders this mountain of human agonies.
She had tried. She had tried everything. Done all the right things, the kind things.
All of the rational arguments, the statements in even tone, the logical, respectful pleadings.
Signing her name as if in blood, her gut wrenched with shame.
But the fingers that made the final confirmation brimmed with electricity.
For the first time in her life, Rahima felt real, actionable power in her grasp.
And that, one way or another, the Shimii would carry out their vengeance.
“Based on the fuhrerprinzip, you are to follow my orders without deviation. Correct?”
“You have done your reading– yes, unless you are contradicted by the Reichskommissar.”
“Good. Let me know if you need any access. I’ll make sure you have it.” Rahima said.
There was a girlish titter on the line.
“You know– you sound so formidable– I look forward to meeting you in the flesh.”
That voice was almost lascivious in its tone. Rahima could not be bothered by it anymore.
It was the last of her concerns now.
That armband on her bicep felt like a wound that had been ripped open in her.
Rahima laid her hand upon it. It had to bleed then. There was only the bleeding left.
Whispering in her mind an apology to Conny Lettiere–
and to everything she had once stood for.
“I will get to work then, Rahima Jašarević. I look forward to serving, Herr Gauleiter.”
THE PAST WILL COME BACK AS A TIDAL WAVE