Post 6 – “That aalaa’ish you fed me about woman trouble! I should have my head examined!

“What do you mean I’m not getting paid?”

Alberich was hunched over and sweating profusely as he slowly churned a great vat of curry with a ladle.  The dark stains around his pits and neck had streaked straight through to the bottom of the red kurta he was still wearing, and he had long stopped worrying about the splashes of curry down his front.

Cael had upended his vat of rice on its hinge and was busy shoveling it out onto a metal tray.

“It was the only way to get you on the boat.”

“Are you getting paid?”

“Oh my God, I’ll split it with you.”

“Arey!  How ‘bout some ghiza, already!  We’re starving out here.”

Cael and Alberich had quickly fallen into the habit of speaking in commons when it was just the two of them.  It gave them a little privacy as the language on the ship was similar enough to Sakhimi that everyone could follow each other’s conversation without too much difficulty.

Cael walked over the long service window and leaned over the counter.

“Zamdhima!  One more minute!  It’s coming.”

Working together, the two men heaved the tray of rice over to its groove in the counter.  Alberich glanced over at the 30 hungry, square faces filing through the door.  He struggled against the stench of cow dung and body odor as it overpowered the curry in the modest dining hall. The men had their own bowls and were already digging into the rice when Alberich and Cael went back to drag over the vat of curry.  The men erupted into loud, only somewhat mocking applause as the curry was poured into tray before them.

“Arey!  You didn’t fuck up the rice!”

“It’s a miracle!”

“You boys are angels!”

“Wait your turn!”

“The tables are over here!  Leave some for the rest of us!”

They jostled for space along the counter like their own cows would to the trough.  Alberich could see everyone was wearing the standard gray jumpsuits with neon safety strips that ran down the chest and limbs.  It was the end of a long shift, and the suits were at varying stages of undoing and filth.  Most were unzipped to the waste, some just hanging off the shoulders with the arms still in the sleeves, others held up with suspenders, and the sleeves dragging along the floor.  Those who did have undershirts should have burned them a long time ago.

Cael sat back on the prep counter and reached for a bottle of wine he’d found in the kitchen earlier and hidden in the drawer.  Not bad for their first day on the job.  Their little stainless steel kitchen was a mess, most of which was there before they had even boarded the ship, but they could take a break before attacking it.  They had all the time in the world, now.

Alberich leaned on the counter next to him, digging into his own bowl.

“This is actually very good; maybe a bit spicy.”

“Just wait a few hours.”

“What?”

Cael just shook his head and took another swig.  “You’ll be fine.”

“Look, we haven’t really had a chance to slow down and talk.  I know when you offered to help back then, you didn’t know the whole story.”

“You got me off that planet.  Don’t worry about owing me anything.”

“I’m just saying, if you want to part ways when we reach the next stop….”

“Why, because of that Lukas character?  Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”

The alarm went off just as he brought the wine to his lips again.  It rang throughout ship, red emergency lights flickering over doors and along the walls.  Cael, bottle still in mouth, looked over at Alberich who was frozen mid-bite.  The men in the dining hall looked at each other in confusion before jumping up and running off, some to the safety of the sleep halls, which could detach as emergency transports and even had individual capsules that could be jettisoned if things really got hairy.  Others ran back to the cattle.  Though there were no alarms or flashing lights on those levels to spook the cows, protocol called for them to be watched over and defended if necessary.  The two men were left staring out at the abandoned tables now littered with half eaten, turned over bowls of curry and rice.

Cael took in a breath. “Huh… well, that doesn’t m…”

“COOKS!” Barked a voice over the intercom.  “GET UP TO THE FLIGHT KO THRI!  NOW!”

Cael dropped his head and sighed.

Their footsteps echoed on the metal grating floors of the dingy hallways.  They had to pass by the sleep hall on their way up and Alberich saw those same faces peering out at them with curiosity and suspicion.  The boss was yelling before the two men had even reached the threshold of the ko thri.

“I KNEW I should have turned you away!  Who works for FREE?  That aalaa’ish you fed me about woman trouble!  I should have my head examined!”

There were several other expletives that Cael and Alberich had trouble following, so they stood awkwardly and waited for the boss to finish venting.  The cabin was dim with the red emergency lights holding a steady light instead of flickering.  The pilot on duty was gazing up at a wall of screens in front of him.  Each had images of their flight path and signal readings sinking back in three dimensions that adjusted themselves to the pilot’s point of view.  He used the keys on the panel attached to his chair to manipulate the screens.  It seemed to Cael like he was looking for something.

“So,” he started once the boss was out of breath, “what seems to be the problem?”

The squat man ran a hand through his thinning hair.

“Some asshole rogo’st is demanding to come on board and take the fat one into custody; said he’s some kind of murderer, sick in the head.”

Alberich threw up his hands, “Not true!”

The boss eyeballed him.  “Not really my problem.  He says he’ll open fire if we don’t comply.  Didn’t sound interested in negotiating.  THAT’S my problem.”  The boss took out an old pistol from the waistband of his half zipped suit.  Alberich caught a whiff of dung as two men came in from behind with electric cattle prods.  The pilot looked over his shoulder nervously.

“Have you tried calling the authorities?”

“Of course, but we’re an entire day out from Bhara and a good week out from the Gate.  We’re on our own.”

Cael also raised his hands.  “Mind if I talk to him?”

The boss thought about it.  “Be my guest.  You do anything stupid and there’ll be no hesitation, samajhna?”

“Samajhata, yes, got it.”

The pilot showed him the microphone stretching out from the wall of screens on an adjustable arm.

“Hello, hello?  Lukas?  This is Cael.  I believe we spoke earlier?”

There was only static in response.  Cael exchanged glances with the pilot.  He was about to turn back to the boss when the static cut out.

The voice that broke the silence was not male but a high, shaky female voice.

“Cael?”

There was a sharp intake of breath as he recognized the voice.

“Ilya?  …What are you doing there?”

“Just… he says to go to the airlock.”

“Are you okay?  Did he hurt you?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m so sorry, Ilya.”

“He promises you’ll be safe if you give him Alberich.”

“What about you?”

“If… if you do as he says he’ll… take us home.”

Cael looked back at the men in the cabin.  Alberich was by far the largest one in the room, and he looked the most helpless.

“Okay.  We’ll meet him at the airlock.”

Alberich was shaking his head.

“Okay.”  There was no relief in Ilya’s voice.

“No!”  Alberich took a step back and the cattle prods were raised in readiness.

“Don’t worry,” Cael gently reached up and squeezed his shoulders, “I have a plan.”

The airlock located aft of the ship was moderately sized; only meant to allow passage for individuals and small containers.  There was a small circular window built into the inner door next to the control panel.  Cael was looking through it intently as Alberich, the boss and another 10 men waited behind him in the haphazardly stocked storage bay.

“So, what’s the plan?”  Alberich asked.

“Um…” he looked back, “we’re going to rush him.”

“Ah.  That’s not really a plan.”

A caution alarm went off and the lights flickered yellow as the outer door started to slide open.  Cael turned back to the window to see the door open to complete darkness.  The yellow caution light that held steady in the airlock illuminated nothing past its own walls.  He couldn’t tell if he was seeing empty space out there or if there really was a ship with its own airlock on the other side.

The boss spoke up.  “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.  I don’t see… oh, hello.”

A shadow drift in from the darkness.  Cael strained to catch defining facial features but he supposed there was a helmet or mask hiding them from view.  The figure took a few steps forward.

“Okay, boys, get ready.”  He hovered his hand over the panel, but the figure stopped suddenly as a white light flashed from its wrist.  The figure looked down at its wrist, then back up in alarm.  Before Cael realized it, the gray silhouette was gone.  There was a slight vibration in the wall and suddenly stars were visible through the door.

“What?”  Cael looked back at the men.  “What just happened?”

“You tell us.”  The boss frowned.

“Arey! Boss!” The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom.  “I need you back up here!”

The boss looked around.  “You, you and you two come with me.  The rest of you, make sure nothing comes through that door until I give the okay.”

Cael, Alberich and the two men with the cattle prods followed him has he ran back through the halls to the flight ko thri.

He shouted through the doorway as they reached the cabin.  “What’s going on?”

“I found him, boss!  He just lit up suddenly.”

“What’s he doing?”  The boss crouched down and put his head near the pilots so he could see the screens properly.

“He’s skating around us.”

“Bozhe Waala!    He’s dropping something on us!”

Cael pushed his way between them.  “What!  What is he dropping?”

They were answered by a series of muted explosions.  The pilot pushed the ship in an attempt to maneuver away but it was much too large and cumbersome a mass, and Lukas’s ship easily continued so slip around them.

Cael jumped onto the microphone and looked to the pilot who opened the radio.

“We were cooperating!  What happened! Why are you doing this?  Ilya!  Lukas!  Somebody! Please respond!”

There was only static in reponse.

“… Please!”

The static clicked off.  “Cael?”

“Ilya!  What’s going on?”

“He… he’s letting me talk to you, because he says it doesn’t matter anymore.  He’s going to… he’s going to destroy the ship.”

All the men exclaimed at once.  The boss grabbed Cael by the shoulder and tried to raise the pistol but Cael deftly stepped out of the hold and wrenched it from his grip.  He held the gun up and dropped the bullets out of it to the floor.  The boss stood back in a daze as Cael offered the emptied pistol back to him.

Ilya’s voice continued weakly, “He says it’s… too late… for everyone on the ship.”

Explosions continued to pop along the hull; sending vibrations through everyone’s bones.

“He says it’s infected with the Legion.”

Cael’s head snapped back to the screens.  He grabbed the microphone.

“Are you sure?  How can he know?”

“He says he knows!  Cael, I can’t stop him!  You have to get off that ship!”

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Post 5: “I’m sorry. It was kind of a dramatic moment. You know how I get.”

Ilya awoke to find herself in her mother’s bed, her riding coat removed and the old blanket wrapped around her. Her mother and a husband were sitting on either side of the bed watching her.

“Kostya?” She croaked to her husband.

He took her hand, “My pyari, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

Even in the dim light of the lamp, she could see concern his large, dark eyes. It seemed like ages since she had last seen his round, boyish face. His brown skin had a red flush to it from working the family land with her cousins. He nervously tucked behind his ear a strand of hair that had fallen from where he tied it back.

Her mother held out a glass of water. “Here, rebacchka, drink.”

Ilya leaned forward a bit and obeyed. “Kostya, where is Osip?”

“He took Nessabha to the city, yesterday.”

“Little Nessa? Is she sick? Is she okay?”

“It’s only a fever. Children get fevers.”

She nodded and tried to sit up more.

“No,” Lyubov held her down. “Don’t exert yourself.”

“Amá, I feel fine.”

“You run off, and you come back unconscious. You know better than to worry me so much.”

“I’m sorry.” Ilya looked back and forth between the two of them. “I’m sorry.” She shrugged. “It was kind of a dramatic moment. You know how I get.”

Her mother was not amused. “You caught up with him, then.”

“Yes.”

“Your cousin said as much. I told you it was too late. You should not have chased after him.”

“I had to. I had to try, Amá.”

No one replied.

“What? You were the one harping on how important he was to the family.”

Lyubov said nothing.

“Amá?”

Her mother’s eyes darted to a dark corner of the room and for the first time Ilya noticed a man sitting there. His dark gray suit camouflaged him so well….

And cold shot of adrenaline spiked through her body. Ilya tried to cry out a warning but her throat only squeaked and wheezed. The rapid fluttering of her heart made it hard to breath.

“Ilya. Stoep. I am noet haere to huert you.” He spoke slowly, his accent over enunciated the vowels, giving them time to bend and warp into the appropriate sound as he wrenched the new language under his control. There was cold authority in the voice, and she couldn’t draw comfort from the words.

“Is it tomorrow already?” Her voice shook.

“Whaere es he?”

Kostya squeezed her hand. “He says if you tell him where they went, he’ll leave us alone.”

Ilya looked at the ghostly figure in the corner. His dark suit melting in and out of the shadow so well her eyes were having trouble establishing the edges of his silhouette.

“They’re gone.”

“I… assumed as mouch. Whaet ship? Whaet names?”

It felt wrong, but she couldn’t stop the words from coming out of her mouth.

“I… I don’t know. He was all over the saitos and port-com boards, yesterday.” A new wave of insight hit her. Had Cael been planning to leave before Alberich even knocked on their door? No… no, because, “he checks them every day.”

Not the port-com boards, whispered something from the back of her mind.

“Yaes. Kiran. Told mae. You spoeke at the poart.”

She looked to her husband, who could only return a pleading gaze. She looked back and shook her head. “I didn’t hear much over my own screaming. Sorry.”

The shadow sighed and adjusted in his seat. “No matter. I will caetch them at the Gaet.”

Ilya swallowed hard. “What… what? Will you do to them?”

“Alberich will be taeken ento custody.”

“And Cael?”

The blurry silhouette seemed to shrug. “I am noet concerned with heim, but I cannoet guarantee his saefety. If Alberich has an episode, or Cael triaes to stoep mae, I will use whaetever force I joudge necessary.”

Ilya eyes searched the face in the shadow, but she couldn’t quite make out the details.

“Why do you tell me all of this?”

“So thaet you will haelp mae.”

“Help you?”

“Come with mae. Bae my advocate… or distract heim long enough for mae to do my joeb. Either waey, once I have Alberich, I weill leave Cael to… your custody. You could breing heim home, if you wesh.”
Her mother stood. “No! She cannot leave. Ilya is too weak for travel, you cannot expose her to this kind of danger.”

The silhouette cocked his head and watched them for a long moment. Ilya’s mother sat down again.

“Vaery waell. I do noet doubt you are corraect. It seems I have mouch to work out and little taime to spare. I weill beg your leave.”

Ilya’s eyes saw him rise and slip his way across to the door. He was gone without a sound, before the silhouette even had a chance to disappear from her vision; and she had to blink a few times before she could be sure he really wasn’t there anymore. No one spoke for a few minutes. The man left so quickly, and ordeal over so suddenly, no one knew how to react. Her mother walked over to the door and flipped on the harsh overhead light in the bedroom and the hallway. It struck Ilya has something that was done after waking from a nightmare.

Lyubov clutched at her silk robe and kept watch at the door until she was satisfied the man was really gone. She walked over to the little skrina on the nightstand and spoke to one of Ilya’s uncles in hushed tones away from the bed. The few words she passively overheard confirmed the whole compound was on alert. However, Ilya’s attention was on her husband. His eyes were on their clasped hands. She reached up with her free hand and brushed a few strands of hair that had fallen over his face again.

“Kostya…”

He closed his eyes for a moment but didn’t respond.

Lyubov propped the skrina back on the side table. “I need to run downstairs and make sure everyone is okay. You two will be fine in here?”

She looked up. “Yes, thank you.”

Her mother gave her a quick hug and Ilya watched her walk out into the hallway.

Ilya was about to reach for her husband again when he finally spoke.

“I’ve never been so scared in my entire life. Not even during Nessabha’s birth.”

“He’s gone now.”

“And he didn’t even do anything. He didn’t threaten us, or hurt anyone… but I still couldn’t move. I could barely speak.”

“Kostya…” She tried to comfort him but she couldn’t think of anything to say, and he refused to respond to her touch.

“But you, you spoke to him as if it was nothing.”

“No, I pretty was terrified.”

Kostya finally looked at her.

“Please don’t go after him again.”

“What?”

“Cael; please just let him stay away.”

“I… why would you….”

“Kiran told me what happened at the dock. He said you begged Cael to take you with him.”

“No, I mean… I panicked. I was only trying to buy some time… to get him to stay.”

He shook his head. “Is he so important? We’re your family, too, Ilya, and we’ve barely seen you this past year. You didn’t even know that Nessabha had a fever yesterday; your own child. What if he had said yes? You would have just left your entire family without even saying goodbye?”

He held her gaze in the harsh light.

“He was important, but not for the reasons you think.”

“The genetics thing your mother goes on about?”

Ilya glanced at the door her mother had walked through.

“Well, you already have a daughter. If you want more children we can visit the fertility clinics again.”

“No, I don’t… want to do that. I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

“Okay, fine. Then just tell me you won’t go after him. That’s all I really care about.”

She looked at the scared, determined face of her husband. “I won’t.”

“And you’ll stay home with us? No more work in the town for a while.”

“I… I couldn’t very well see patients without Cael, could I? He always did most of the work.”

Kostya bowed down and kissed her hand. “Good. Good, thank you.” He reached up and they held each other for a moment. “As soon as we know Nessabha is okay, we’ll move you back into the house. No point in getting both of you sick.”

“Of course.”

He sat back and held her hand again.

“Kostya?”

“Yes, my pyari?”

“Do you mind if… I still feel pretty weak form all of this excitement. Do you mind if I rest awhile?”

“No, of course.” They hugged again. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He helped her settled back down into the bed, and she watched him as he flipped off the light and left her alone in the darkness.

So it was back to this life, then? No work, no “unnecessary exertion,” no stress, no excitement. Cael leaves and they can’t wait to lock her back up in a sterile, boring room. Ilya turned onto her side and stared into the blackness. For her protection, clearly; always for the protection of their precious, fragile girl.

She thought of the first time she heard news of the hapless foreigner. Too stupid to stay out of trouble, too nice to leave the wounded behind and avoid getting arrested; that was what she heard her cousins laughing about. Her mother saw the possibilities immediately, of course. After her bed ridden year of pregnancy and postpartum, all Ilya could see was a chance to get off the family property; a moment to spend away from her smothering, doting husbands and the emotional extremes of a demanding, sickly infant.

The fact that Cael took her for granted was even refreshing in the beginning. He never acted as if she were in danger of fainting any moment. His gaze never took on the intense stare of an examination, looking for signs of anemia or illness with every encounter. If he was to be saddled with her as an assistant, she had to catch up with the needs of their little clinic.

With Cael, Ilya’s work was important, her opinions were respected, or at least they had been until recently. It was a strange dichotomy, he cared less and made her feel more important. She wasn’t just some rare pet whose whims had to be tolerated; to ensure she is protected and able to breed, to produce more.

She tossed the sheets aside and rolled to her other side with a sigh. Her eyes were adjusting to the faint line of light emanating from under the door, and she could just make out the outline of her mother’s altars.

But maybe that’s just what she was to him; a pet of her mother’s whom he dutifully watched over while she “assisted” him at the office.

The thought struck her so hard in the stomach, she sat up convulsively.

What if he had only been tolerating her this entire time? She could imagine him being so desperate to leave in the end, it was no wonder he jumped at the chance with Alberich. Kostya was right; it was best she that she left the man alone. Not that she was planning on going after him. A foreigner such as Cael, with a shady past such as his, could no doubt take care of himself. It had worked out for him so far, hadn’t it? Until he got himself arrested on this little planet, she supposed.

Ilya let herself flop back down to the pillows. He was too nice. That was his problem. If he had been meaner, she would have gladly bid him farewell. He wouldn’t even have been in that bar long enough to get arrested in the first place, and she would never have heard of him. But was that really so bad, being too nice? Maybe he had only tolerated her, but he’d made her feel appreciated and independent.

No, she thought, his real problem now was that his problems weren’t HIS problems, they were Alberich’s. Ilya was easy enough to escape, but this Lukas was a different animal. Cael may have gotten into trouble before, but Alberich’s trouble may be beyond his abilities.

But… if she were there, maybe… maybe she could help him. If she could trust this Lukas at his word. Return the favor for her three years of freedom, however false they seemed in hindsight. Maybe he would be willing to stay a while before leaving again. Say goodbye, and give her time to prepare for a return to this life of stillness so it wouldn’t feel so suffocating. Maybe her mother’s idea of another child wasn’t so crazy. Her stomach cringed at the memory of her first. No, she wouldn’t have to think about that right now, anyway.

But was she really thinking of joining Lukas, this shadow that caused such terror in her life already? Ilya curled into a ball and hugged her knees. Maybe… Kostya had admired her bravery just for talking to him. Maybe she was braver than she thought.

Don’t be stupid! He doesn’t need you, remember?

She imagined him floating in the vast sky, a metal spec of a ship indiscernible from the stars; so frustratingly arrogant and cowardly, and vulnerable to the endless, cold vacuum; with Lukas racing after him.

Ilya had thrown off the sheets again and had slipped on her shoes and coat in the dark before she realized what she was doing. Her feet found their own way tiptoeing down the hall and the steps to the back door. She found her cousin’s truck parked there, and in its bed, her bike. She dragged it down as quietly as she could in her weakened state, and peddled it off the compound before starting the engine. All the while, she tried desperately to keep her mind free of thought, to let her body do the acting. If she was going to do this, she couldn’t delay any longer. Lukas may have already taken off, for all she knew, and then her decision would be made for her.

As she approached the city lights, she couldn’t help but see how pretty they were. The familiar skyline blurred with the tears in her eyes, and a thought slipped through wondering how long it would be before she saw those lights again.

 

Lukas’s ship looked like a single, sleek, black wing. Its surface was glossy and reflective like a dark mirror. He leaned casually against the hatch that dropped down in the back, and watched Ilya as she walk her bike up to him across the dock platforms. She stopped as the wing’s shadow fell across her.

“I haed a feeling I’d saee you again.”

“Just,” bring him back to me, she thought, “take me with you.”

Post 4 – “I’M GOING TO VOMIT!”

Ilya was deep into her family’s land after a few minutes of riding. The vast, harvested fields slid past her, chewed up and empty in the cold moonlight. Without the crops to hide her view, the lights of the family compound glowed and called to her long before she reached the first of squat houses. First she rode past the mammoth harvesters that were clustered together like sleeping beasts of burden, their folded limbs jutting up into the sky. She slowed to weave between the homes where her uncles and their families slept. She was happy to see the familiar walls made of brick and plaster, and sleepy wooden porches. The main house, built of wood and concrete, was almost as grand as the buildings in town. Ilya could see the first floor windows still bright with activity. She knew she could probably still catch some hot dinner, and after having eaten almost nothing all day, her stomach growled ferociously through the knots that still twisted there.

She turned off the motor and glided around to the back porch. Before she even swung open the kitchen’s screen door, she was greeted by the tiny radio thumping out a bass as best it could behind the pop singer’s birdlike warbling. The kitchen was enormous, taking up half of the first floor and the boys didn’t hear her over the radio as she walked up behind them. She moved past the ovens and fridges and leaned on the counter to get their attention. A couple of her younger brothers, the twins, 12 years old now, were doing the last of the dishes, their plain kurtas rolled up at elbow and soaked through from splashing dishwater. A cousin about her own age dried and put them away.

“Bochka, Chander, where is Amá?”

The two looked up from their dishes.

“What are you doing here?” Said one.

“Ha’! Don’t you have a home with your own husbands?” Said the other.

They both giggled.

“Ugh! Is she asleep already?”

Her cousin stepped in, and using his towel, flicked both boys across their rear ends. Her brothers squealed in protest. “Auntie Lyubov is still up. I just brought up her evening tea.”

“Thanks.”

She began to walk off but darted back to one of the fridges and grabbed a plastic container of some kind of stewed leftovers, still warm.

“Ilya.”

She looked up in time to catch the spoon tossed her way.

“Thanks.”

She was already digging in before she reached the top of the stairs. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dark hall before she could see a thin, blue light flickering from the crack under her mother’s door. She lightly tapped on the doorframe before pushing her way in.

“Come in?” Her mother was awash in light emanating from the small skrina propped on the bedside table. Sitting alone in the middle of the bed, she had a silk robe wrapped around her, her salt and pepper hair was down in two loose braids. Lyubov had yet to take her eyes off the skrina when she tapped at a console. At once the skrina faded to black, and the lamp in the corner faded in to life.

“Ilya? My rebacchka! What brings you to the house?” She adjusted her large figure and smoothed out the old blanket around her.

Ilya walked over, spoon in mouth, and sat on the edge of the bed. “Is that a new robe? It’s very pretty.”

“Thank you! It just came in the mail last week.”

Lyubov ran a hand over the gold threaded patterns that curled and weaved back in on itself down the length of the dark sleeve. The design was from neighboring Pyrthi which Ilya had seen becoming more popular among the women in the city.

Her mother was waiting for her to start, yet she felt herself floundering. Ilya chewed at a large stewed piece still in her mouth but suddenly found it difficult to swallow. Her mother’s smile quickly collapsed into a concerned frown.

“Tell me what happened.”

“He…” Ilya forced down the last chunk. “He has other names.”

Eating was a bad idea, she thought she was going to throw up, but it was only a sob that escaped her lips.

“Oh,” Lyubov held open her arms and Ilya crawled over to her. She curled up and burrowed herself in the smooth silk, letting the plastic bowl rest haphazardly in her lap.

“And a secret compartment in his suitcase.”

“Shhh… deep breaths.”

“and there’s a man who knows things about him…”

“Ilya, deep breaths…. In?”

Ilya struggled to take a deep breath.

“Out?”

She held it for a moment and tried to release the air as slowly as possible.

“Good. Now, start from the beginning.”

“Cael… he… took on a new patient; a foreigner. Cael says he needs help. There’s another man coming to get him.”

“To get Cael?”

“No, Alberich, the foreigner. He’s blackmailing Cael into helping him. I told him! I told Cael I had a bad feeling! But he wouldn’t listen, and the other man will be here tomorrow because of me! Why wouldn’t he listen?”

“A man is blackmailing Cael into helping Albe- berick?”

“No! Alberich is blackmailing Cael!”

“I don’t understand, rebacchka. This man just met Cael, how can he blackmail him?”

“He said he’d done his ‘homework.’ He’s going to get Cael in trouble somehow if he doesn’t help him!”

“Ilya, Ilya….” Her mother shushed and stroked her hair. Ilya tried to take another slow breath. “I am so sorry, rebacchka. I was starting to believe this day would never come.”

She took another deep breath. “What do you mean?”

Lyubov took the bowl of leftovers and set it on the console next to her tea.

“He never hid his past from us, Ilya. We went through all of that trouble to get him to our little town; we knew enough not to ask.” She took Ilya’s face in her hands and wiped her eyes. “Am I wrong?”

“No, I knew; but after three years… I guess I forgot.”

“Well, then, do you remember why we brought him here?”

“To be a doctor for the town; to be my husband… so I could learn to be a doctor, too.”

“Oh my sweet rebacchka. My sweet, sweet child; and dumb, so very dumb.”

“Amá.”

“You have it all backwards. The job and the training? That was an excuse to get him to marry you.” Lyubov looked at her daughter, waiting for the idea sink in. “I mean, well, obviously.”

“Amá? What ‘obviously?’ I already had two husbands, AND a baby gir-WOULD you stop staring at me like that.”

“I thought you understood this.”

“So then why?”

“I knew you two wouldn’t warm up to each other immediately, but I assumed it would only be a matter of time.”

Ilya glared at her mother. “Before. What.”

Her mother grew serious. “You were able to have a child, yes. But she’s weak; so much weaker than even you were when I had you. And so many others your age these days who can’t even carry to term anymore.”

“I know this, Amá.”

“But you don’t understand why. Even those idiots in the city who take care of all of you, they don’t understand.” Lyubov helped Ilya slide off of her lap before climbing out of the bed. She picked the picture frame skrina off of the bedside table and tapped at it until she was satisfied and handed it to her daughter.

“Who is this?” Ilya looked at the portrait of a middle aged, man. He had thick skin that was a light tan, and already cracked with crow’s feet and worry lines. The serious frown of his lips was nearly hidden under a bushy mustache, and offset by a glint of mischief in his brown eyes. The square of his jaw and dense curls in his hair made him stand out to Ilya as a foreigner, though the kurta and coat he wore fit him well.

“That was your great grandfather.”

Ilya looked again with incredulous eyes.

“He was a refugee of a great war, and he was my grandmother’s only husband. Yes! And yet, I had six aunts, plus my mother, and eight uncles, almost all of whom survived to have children of their own; unheard of numbers around here.” She took back the skrina and smiled at it. “I had eight brothers and a sister. You almost had eight brothers, too.”

Her mother’s tone was light, but Ilya still felt the need to reach up and squeeze her hand. Lyubov squeezed back and sat on the edge of the bed, again.

“Do you understand now? Our family needs fresh blood, Ilya, and that takes fresh seed.”

“He Bhaga, Amá! That’s disgusting. You had me up to ‘fresh seed’… I wish you could have let me in on your plan.”

Lyubov sighed and reached for the tub of cooling stew. “It doesn’t matter now. He’s gone.”

“Gone? Amá, he’s not gone! He and Alberich are on their way here. I’m going back now with one of the trucks to pick them up.”

She sighed again, “My sweet, precious, stupid child…. He is gone! That’s why he ignored you. He knew this new man would bring trouble as surely as you did, and he WANTED trouble to come and sweep him away.”

“No.” Ilya was shaking her head.

“Ilya, think about it. You two could have just called ahead. We would have come pick you up. Ilya? It’s okay.”

“No…” She laughed at the idea. He couldn’t leave. Cael couldn’t leave her.

Before she even realized what she was doing, Ilya had crawled backwards off the bed and was making her way downstairs. Her brothers had finished with the dishes and it was only her cousin finishing up in the kitchen. He looked up as she walked in.

“I need to borrow the truck.”

They were rumbling down the road within minutes.

“I could have driven myself!” She shouted over the engine.

“A truck is not like a bike!”

The drive was only a few miles, but it seemed to be taking forever. They were nearly in the town when Ilya started panicking. Where were they? She strained to see past the truck’s head beams. Where were they? Why weren’t they on the road? Her stomach jumped to life again.

“Ilya? What’s wrong?”

“I’M GOING TO VOMIT!”

The old truck squealed and lurched to a stop as Ilya threw open the door and heaved the stew. Everything, thankfully, disappeared in a thick cloud of dust.

“He Bhaga, cousin, are you all right? Are you pregnant?”

“No.”

She slowly leaned back in and closed the door but continued to hang her head out of the window. “Kiran,” she said weakly, “Can you drive me to the city?”

“The city? That’s almost an hour away.”

“An hour and a half… we have to get to the other side.”

Cael and Alberich hadn’t talked the entire car ride and it wasn’t a comfortable silence. However, as they pulled up to the floodlit docking platforms of the port, now didn’t seem to be the right time to address it. Alberich somehow got the opposite impression.

“I did something wrong, didn’t I?”

Cael left the “borrowed” auto in a dark corner of the parking lot and left the keys on the driver’s seat.

“No, you did just fine.”

“It was the money. I offered too much too fast.”

“She didn’t suspect a thing.”

They walked up to the night window; a squat metal box that held a small, balding and bespectacled old man with a long gray mustache.

“I was too anxious to leave.”

“You and I both.”

“But….”

“Shshsshshushss…” Cael held up both hands to quiet his companion. He didn’t drop them until he was sure Alberich was done. They turned to the little man in the window who nodded at both of them.

“Good evening?”

“Yes, good evening, sirs. How may I help you?”

“I saw on the board earlier there was a ship leaving tomorrow. Is there still work available?”

“Do you recall the name of the ship?”

Cael snapped his fingers, “Aaah… hmm… The Pa… pa-pa….”

“The Pareesa, yes, sir.” The man looked off to a kampyu out of view. They could see the glow of its miniature screen reflected in his spectacles as he tapped at the keys laid out on the counter. “It looks like there is still time to apply for in the kitchen, but there is only one position available.”

“That will not be a problem. Who do I talk to?”

“YOU! COWARD!”

The approaching truck hadn’t registered with Cael, and he turned in time to see Ilya flying at him. He caught her wrists as she swung at his chest.

“You were just going to leave! How could you??”

“Ilya!” She was hysterical and he was having some trouble holding her back. “Ilya! Calm down! Oh my God, did you vomit?”

“You liar!”

“I know. I know! Do you hear me? I know! I am a coward, and bad person, Ilya. Okay?”

She stopped struggling but continued to gasp for air. “Why did you lie to me?”

He looked at Alberich who offered nothing, and exchanged glances with the man in the window. “It… was… easier. That’s all. It was just going to be easier.”

“You can’t go. You’re my husband, you can’t leave me.”

“Ilya. I’m not… you don’t need me.”

“But I do. You don’t understand. Please, can we please talk about this? Can’t you sleep on it for one night?”

“You’ve forgotten about Lukas. He’s on his way to find Alberich and now me. We can’t stay.”

“Then let me come with you!”

“What? You can’t come with us, Ilya.”

“No, miss!” Yelled the man in the window, “I am sorry, but I would be breaking the law if I let you board a ship. Bhara women are not permitted to leave.”

She tried to swing at the little man but Cael wouldn’t loosen his grip on her wrists.

“This is what you wanted!” She cried. “How long? How long had you been planning to run away?” Her breaths started coming in long ragged gasps.

Cael looked down at her and said gently, “I was never going to stay. Not from the first day you found me, was I going to stay.”

Her head fell back as her gasps became strangled. Her cousin, who had been standing by the truck, rushed over as Ilya collapsed in Cael’s arms.

“Ilya!”

“She’s okay, she’s okay,” Cael soothed. “She just fainted.”

Alberich wasn’t sure what to do, he took a step forward then back, hugging the kampdator. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s just weak. All the women are here… it’s why they aren’t allowed to leave. They’re too fragile… too precious.” He looked up at her cousin. “Can you take her home?”

Kiran swallowed and nodded.

Cael carried her to the truck and laid her across the seat, her head resting on Kiran’s leg.

“Goodbye.”

Post 3 – “So, what are you, Alberich, a sleeper or a carrier?”

She gasped and fell over as she tried to turn around from her crouched position. The large man had only whispered the words with no hint of the threat she’d heard in the recording, yet he seemed to loom dangerously over her from behind the examining table. Cael remained seated but stretched an arm protectively in front of Ilya.

“Should really get that window looked at.”

“Those sessions were private. You had no right….”

“Nonsense,” he replied lightly, “Dr. Vitor-Bieito herself took considerable risk to get this to us.”

“She did so because you told her I was your patient.”

“And so you are.”

Alberich paused. “You trust me, then? That I’m telling the truth. You’ll do it?”

“I… believe you need help; and I trust Dr. Vitor-Bieito.”

That answer seemed to satisfy him. “When do we leave?”

The question smacked Ilya in the face. “LEAVE?”

Cael squeezed her knee. “Well, we definitely need to vacate the current premises.”

“Why?” Ilya felt that ache in her stomach spring into her throat.

He eased the chair out from under him and sat on the floor next to her. “This Lukas character is going to be here tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry! It’s all my fault!”

“Ilya, shush, it’s okay.” He moved a hand to her shoulder. “This is a good thing.”

“How?”

“If I had said a week, she would have said a week; but HE still would have been here tomorrow.”

“Or sooner.” Alberich added.

“Now we know, and we know to move now.”

“Move? Cael, move to where?”

He glanced at Alberich and back to Ilya. “Do you think your mother would mind if we stayed the night?”

“Mind?” The question took a moment to sink in, “There will be a guest room for Mr. Alberich, and a husband of mine will always be welcome.”

Alberich stood quietly out of the way as Ilya moved between the rooms in a rehearsed drill of destruction. Cael did his part and deleted all of the files on the kampyuskrina before taking it off the wall and gutting it. Small gadgets he had given to her were to be placed in each drawer, fridge and cabinet. Once set, they would burn intensely just long enough to destroy everything before issuing a suffocating chemical mist. This, as he explained to her, was to protect the patients from whoever would inevitably come for Cael without burning whole the building down. Ilya had never imagined the drill would be needed. Her hands shook as she twisted the timers to life and dropped them in.

15 minutes until the gadgets were set to flame, Ilya was at a loss in Cael’s room. Somehow it had become her job to pack his clothes. She blindly reached under the bed for his hard-shell suitcase. When she felt a solid edge, she slid her hands along until she could grip at the smooth metal corners. She had to drag out a tidal wave of sour, glass bottles, dirty dishes, clothes and newspapers along with the case. Its handle had broken off long ago and she had to awkwardly heave the luggage up before dropping it on the bed. The hard, black leather that protected the suitcase bore innumerable scratches and gouges from past travels. Ilya ran a hand over them for a moment before working at the two belts that synched the case shut. The inside was lined with a worn and somewhat frayed green fabric. Its dense, intricate pattern of interwoven angels would have hurt Ilya’s eyes had it not been so faded.

She took a deep breath, held it and started throwing in all the clothing she could dig out from around her feet. She was snagging any piece of cloth and whatever trash that came with it. When her knuckle struck an inner corner of the case, the whole back panel clicked and sprung open a bit, and she had to stifle a yip as she jumped back. The old, green pattern no longer lined up along that edge as the panel tried to push up. A secret compartment… a secret. The clothing weighed down the spring and she found herself moving to lift them off.

“Ilya, how is it going in here?”

Her hand slapped down the panel as Cael’s head popped in the doorway. His arms were in the final tangle of pulling on his narrow, gray coat.

“There, um, is so much everywhere. I don’t know what I’m supposed to grab.”

Cael looked around her at the suitcase and reached for it, “That’s good. Grab the little kampdator and let’s go.”

“Cael?” She whispered.

“Yes? What?” He had already started out the door but ducked back.

“You said you trust Doctor Vitor-Bieito.”

“Yes?”

“But she said he was dangerous.”

Cael dropped to a whisper as well. “He may be. I don’t understand everything that’s going on, yet; but she asked us to protect him. She truly cares for him. I know you felt that, too.”

Ilya remembered those ice blue, red rimmed eyes boring into her. “Yes.”

“Then let’s go.”

The three exited to the second floor walkway of the courtyard. A moon was full that night and the delicately peaked arches that spanned between each pillar cast a lacework of shadows across all of their faces and down Alberich’s shoulders. When they got to the bottom of the steps, Ilya awkwardly had to hand off the kampdator to Alberich so she could unfold her motored bicycle she’d parked there. She pulled from the bike’s storage compartment a long riding coat made of a heavy, solid blue cloth. She threw it around herself against the cold, leaving the large collar unbuttoned around her shoulders. Since the bike was too small for all of them to ride, she pushed it alongside the men as they started off.

Ilya’s town served as the center of the farmlands of a dozen families, and with the exception of a few bars, the entire area practically shutdown at sunset. This meant the trio had the narrow streets to themselves. Even still, they felt the need to move quickly, and when they spoke it was in hushed tones.

Cael had balanced the suitcase on his head as he walked between Ilya and Alberich, trying to discreetly watch each of them; the angry little woman shuffling her soft boots as she pushed the bike along, and the big man who managed to walk so silently beside him with the bulky kampdator tucked under one arm and the leather satchel slung under the other.

“Alberich, can I ask who Lukas is?”

“Now?”

“He is in a hurry to find us; it would seem rude if we happen to meet him unprepared.”

He shrugged, “I don’t know who he is.”

“Do you know why he’s so interested in you?”

“I think once I regain my memory I’ll have a better idea.”

“But you think you lost your memory when you were just a child.”

Alberich glanced around at the darkened porches and store fronts, each building indistinguishable from the other.

“I think there’s something in my head he wants.”

Ilya couldn’t help herself, “Something your other personality knows?”

“I don’t have another personality.”

“That woman called you Alberte.”

“That,” he switched the kampdator up to his shoulder, “was the name I had to use.”

Ilya pushed her bike ahead so she could see his face beyond Cael’s suitcase. “She said Alberte was her patient, and Alberich was a dangerous, second personality. She said you were dangerous.”

The large man seemed to cower under Ilya’s accusation. Her voice growing more intense with righteousness as Alberich’s seemed to fade. “I’m not dangerous, I’m not violent. Alberte was just an alias. I suppose keeping up the ruse is difficult under hypnosis.”

Cael took a couple of larger steps to get himself in between the two again. “Dr. Vitor-Bieito also mentioned a second personality, was that an act she put on for Lukas?”

“I don’t know. She thought I may have planted memories. She told me about a war she lived through when she was a young woman. Tampering with the mind was a common tactic. Innocent civilians were turned into carrier pigeons. Others turned out to be sleepers with planted orders that were awakened when it was time for their mission.”

“So, what are you, Alberich, a pigeon or a sleeper?”

“If I was just a child, I would assume a pigeon. I can’t imagine a child doing much damage in a war.”

Cael took breath, “Depends on the war.”

“That Lukas looks like you.” Ilya’s whisper seemed to accuse Alberich. “You must be of the same people, then.”

“I thought as much when he first approached me. I wasn’t raised with my people; though I didn’t know that until he came.”

Cael cocked an eyebrow, “Really?”

“How could you not know? You’re huge! Are there two races of giants out there?”

“Ilya.” Cael hissed.

“I was 16 years old and had already been towering over the other kids for years, but my mother said I was an early bloomer… and then I see him walking up, and I suddenly knew. Before he had even had even reached me, I knew he was more a brother to me than the brother I was raised with.”

“Some brother, that man is terrifying. How did he find you?” Ilya injected.

“I don’t know.”

“How did you find Cael?”

“Oh, well,” Alberich shifted the kampdator under his other arm. “A few of his names came up in a few conversations, is all.”

Cael perked up, “Oh? Which names?”

Ilya suddenly felt dizzy. She gripped the handle bars of her bike and tried to keep walking normally.

“There were a few; Calvin Nadami, Michel Rien, Gael… something… all simple enough to infer if one knows what to look for.”

Ilya kicked at Cael’s ankle.

“Ow! I’m balancing here, thank you.”

“How many names do you have?” She hissed.

“Don’t look at me like that. You knew who I was when you first bailed me out of jail and married me. In fact, it’s why you bailed me out of jail in the first place.” Alberich shot them a curious look. “Can we discuss this later?”

The gears started grinding with new vigor in Ilya’s stomach. Cael… may not be Cael. Who could he be then?

“Three years, I’ve worked with you, and not once did you mention aliases. Is Cael even your real name?”

“Ilya now is not really the time.”

“Why not, we still have a few miles until we reach home.”

Despite her argument, they continued walking in silence.

When Cael looked over, he caught her watching Alberich from the corner of her eye. She was having a lot trouble dealing with all of this. A wave of an emotion he likened to extreme fondness settled in his chest; and that surprised him. What was he going to do with her?

“Ilya, I’m sorry. I owe you an explanation. I promise, I will tell you everything you want to know. Everything. However, you’re right, we still have a few miles to go and with Lukas bearing down on us, I think it would be best if we moved a little faster. Do you think you could ride ahead and grab one of the trucks to pick us up?”

That caught her off guard. “One of the trucks?” She thought a moment, “Yes, of course. You’re right. I can make sure they have some food set aside and the guest room ready at the house… and I could see what my mother thinks we should do next.”

“That sounds good.”

Ilya looked as if she was still trying to decide something. He knew she hated to leave in the middle of an argument, but she eventually hopped on her bike. And after buttoning the collar up over her face, she kick started the little motor and rode off without another word.

Alberich stopped walking as the dust kicked up in front of them.

“She wasn’t happy about leaving you here.”

Cael took out a flask from his coat pocket and skillfully unscrewed the top in one hand while holding up the suitcase with the other.

“She hasn’t been happy since you arrived.”

“Do you think she bought it?”

He took a draught as he watched the tail light disappear into the distance.

“Yes.”