Apple of Their Eyes: A Signia Story

Gold ribbon accents hung from the ceiling, silver candles decorated the tables, and men and women alike were gathered around the room in designer black clothes waiting for the performer to sit in front of his gilded instrument. It was possible that I would hate them less if they didn’t lounge in establishments like this. If they were quieter about the profit they were making off of innocent men, women, and children, it would be slightly harder to hate them as much as I do.

Madden grabs my arm, keeping me from walking any further into the lavish room. His light, almost feather-like grip makes me realize that my hands were in fists at my side. “Trust him,” Madden mouths as I look up to make eye contact. Nobody understood that I was trying.

I was trying to get revenge. I was trying to make these people, these corrupt, selfish torturers, pay for everything they had done. I was trying to make a difference. I was trying not to let my anger get the best of me. I was trying to trust Even with the fragility of the only family I had left, because, of course, I was trying to get my brother back. I was trying to keep my life together without allowing all of these emotions to boil over.

Nobody seemed to see this but me.

Nonetheless, I give Madden a sure nod, hoping it looks genuine. Even walks past us, without even acknowledging, nothing more than a paranoid glance over his shoulder. He didn’t need to be associated with us at all when obtaining this information. Madden, Kali, Koi, and I would watch him, each of us waiting patiently for any kind of transfer of information or details. Kali and Koi sat down at a table and waved over to us, as if we were two couples meeting for drinks, yet somehow in perfect sight of Even and the OFM Board of Directors.

As soon as we sit, the murmuring in the room dwindles to  hush as a man in a silver suit and silver mask walks on the stage quietly and takes a seat behind the sleek black piano. As the man’s hands make their way to the crisp white keys, I look one more time to make sure Even is all right. He sat quietly with the Board, intently and eagerly waiting the performance, playing the role of Signian diplomat quiet well. His embellished suit and slick back hair almost looked natural on him, and even though I had seen this boy nearly every day drenched in sweat wearing worn grey training uniforms, he somehow seemed more at ease amidst the clamor of wealth and status. A mining town surely couldn’t give him that, so how did he know how to act so flawlessly pristine?

The melody begins, and my confused thoughts come to an abrupt halt, and as they should. There was no place for me to be thinking like that, especially when there were greater issues on the table.

The song was pretty enough, still, I’m not sure I would pay the overpriced entry fee just to watch a guy in a mask play piano. Either way, my ears were pleased in the least while my paranoid eyes continued to scan the room in search of someone connected to the case. Instead my eyes once again fall on Even, a pleasant smile on his face as he nods with the men around him. If only they were turned towards me, maybe I could catch a glimpse of what they were saying, I wasn’t sure I could wait to hear Even recap it later.

Once again my thoughts were interrupted, but this time it was by waiters in long tailcoats and top hats, each bringing around trays of beverages in skinny cylindrical glasses. The beverages smells sickly sweet of all sorts of fruits, most of which I had probably never even tasted in reality, at most I would have had the synthetic fruit substances the compound produces, but these drinks smelled too sweet to be anything close to those synthetics. When the waiter sets my drink in front of me I smell it before I even know what sits in front of me. This one I had tasted before. Certainly. At the bottom of the cylinder was an apple wedge, bright and red as blood, the rest was filled with a bubbling creme colored liquid. Before I took a sip, even dared to try it, I looked around the room. Eating and drinking on missions was always a tricky thing. Koi nodded to me and Kali proceeded to tilt her head back and down the entire thing in one gulp. She then proceed to take out the three grapes at the bottom of her cup and eat them quickly, as if trying to hide the fact that her drink was gone from everyone around her. Madden chuckles quietly beside me and rolls his eyes at her antics before taking a sip of his own strawberry flavored drink.
I take a deep breath and take a sip of my own, the carbonation in it warms my mouth as the drink slides down my throat.

The masked man at the piano keeps playing, even as his own drink, one filled with a lime green liquid and one kiwi wedge gets set in front of him. My eyes return to Even as the song reaches the peak, he still has that pleasant smile on his face, now somewhat turned into a smirk. The men around him keep nodding, either with the rhythm of the song, or quietly discussing topics we most wanted to hear.

“Shame you have to pay so much for music like this.” Madden whispers in my ear, causing my to jump slightly in my seat. My eyes had been so trained on Even, my ears so trained on the piano, that I nearly forgot the red headed boy was beside me, much less with his hand on my back and his face so close he could whisper in my ear without being heard. I just give Madden a small smile and nod, turning my gaze and seeing the devilish smirk on his face. Why did we ever invite him along?

As the song decrescendos to a quiet hum, people raise their glasses, the stark bright color of the drinks looking even more vivid against the backdrop of their black clothing. We raise our drinks as well, even Kali, whose drink is completely gone. When the music stops, the musician stands, raising his own glass, and then, almost in unison, everyone tilts back their heads, and drinks. It was odd in a ritualistic sense, by the atmosphere in the room it was clear this happened at every performance. Were we supposed to just know this was happening?

The man walked from behind the piano and gracefully came down the stairs to mingle and accept accolades from people at the surrounding tables. Even looks over his shoulder for the briefest second and makes eye contact with me, widening the smirk as he does so, but the glance is brief and his mischievous brown eyes were gone as soon as they appeared. At least, from the fleeting glance I received I know he was confident. If he wasn’t, he would have even looked back, much less smirked. He knew how much was at stake, and he knew how suspicious he looked. Looking at me – at us – was a risk he would only take if he was confident.

“Stop staring, aren’t you supposed to be my date tonight and not loverboy’s over there?” Madden asks coyly, making Koi smile and take a sip from his drink.

“Jezzie doesn’t care about going on dates with either of you, but seriously girl, you look like you are about the murder them, cool it. The whole point of this is not to get caught.” Kali says, waving someone from the waitstaff over for another drink as she says so. I roll my eyes at the two of their comments and gladly take another sickly sweet drink from the man after he hands Kali her own.

“He has something, I know it.” I say, focusing my eyes on the musician traveling around the room instead of my co-commander.

“Ok, you will find all of this out later, didn’t you ever learn how to have fun? We get to drink, and listen to pretty music, and you are ignoring all of it to look at a boy you can look at any day of the week.” Madden says, causing Koi to continue chuckling. I roll my eyes again, listening, but not paying attention to their incessant teasing. My mind was caught up with the masked man, who kept looking in my direction. With my excessive attire I wouldn’t be surprised, I did look out of place, but surrounded by all of these other people dressed in the same fashion as myself, it seemed odd.

Madden, perhaps confused at my lack of response to his comment, follows my gaze and sees the musician looking directly at me. Instinctively he puts his arm around me, watching as the mask turns away and he goes to greet another table sitting near the front.

Koi clears his throat. I turn to look at him and see that all of our gazes fell in the same suspicious direction. “Madden watch him. If he makes a move, take her outside. Even will know what to do. Take her outside before he notices and gets involved.” Koi whispers, barely audible over the clamor of discussion across the room. Masked man looks back over towards us again, but this time his gaze lingers on Kali, not myself. What could he need?

My eyes flit to Even again, and his eyes too, connect with the musician. Something was off. Even moves quickly, nodding and shaking hands of the men at the table. “Start moving.” Koi says, and I run through the motions we had tried so hard to make look believable.

I whisper in Madden’s ear as he moves his hand from my shoulder to cup my back, behind him the musician inches ever closer to our table. Madden stands, unaware of the man forty feet behind him, and he extends a hand to help me down from the tall stool. Koi does the same to Kali, even though she is just as tall as him if not taller. I step towards the door, planting an unnecessary, but harmless, kiss on Madden’s cheek for good measure as we begin to walk out.

“Excuse me!” The musician hurriedly finished a conversation with the table he was just at to run over to us before we could make our escape. “My name is Chamberlain, Destin Chamberlain, and yours?”

Looks like the cheek kiss wasn’t enough. I open my mouth to speak but Madden snappily replies before I can say my own name. “Her name is Ms. Garter to you, now if you will excuse us we must get going, it’s our anniversary, you see. Excellent job tonight, just wonderful sound, it was worth the extra money to hear it. Thank you, we will be going.” Madden says, trying to drop his head to avoid conversation and move quickly out of the musician’s range.

“Sir, excellent job. I would like to talk to you more about the piece-” Koi blurts from behind us, trying to get us away. Koi and Kali could handle it if things got rough, and Madden and I could too, but I knew his true worry. Lately, Even had been slightly more protective than usual, and I knew Koi figured if I was part of the fight that he would join in, and that could not — under any circumstances — happen today. We were so close to getting the information we needed, and I did not want that being jeopardized, and I knew nobody else did either, yet, Even’s rash emotions could compromise it in one fell swoop.

“One moment, Ms. Garter, sir would you let her speak? I want to hear her thoughts on the performance.” I look to Madden and gives a small nod. I put on a brave face and take a deep breath, looking straight at the mask. Short and sweet.

“I thought it was just the most wonderful noise. I haven’t heard music like that since I was very young. Thank you for a breathtaking performance, but I’m afraid my love is right, we do have to get going. Thank you again, Mr. Chamberlain.” I say, my voice quiet but precise, my body tense, waiting impatiently for a move to be made. Out of the corner of my eye I see Even briskly walk out, without even the slightest glance over his shoulder. He had faith in us, or he knew something we didn’t.

“C’mon darling, we should hope our driver isn’t impatient.” Madden says, looping our arms together and walking me through the large black doors that blocked off the performance hall from the rest of the exclusive business club. Even was just down the hall on the other side of the doors, pretending to take a call. In truth he was probably calling Solesm, or whoever it was he spent the weekend with. It was weird that a weekend trip would change him this much, but everything seems different about my co-commander.

I hear Kali’s loud laugh as the door closes behind us, and I know their fine for now. She was always a better actor than I was in those situations. Even smirks down the hall as he sees Madden and me. I can’t help but smirk back, holding back a laugh. To think I thought there was going to be some dramatic fight, yet I’m twenty feet away from Even and my floor length black evening gown doesn’t have a single scratch on it. The door opens and closes behind us, and I peer over my shoulder to see Koi and Kali walking calmly in our direction. Even hangs up the phone and begins walking out of the lounge. We wouldn’t all meet up until we were outside of the perimeter. Even would get in a government owned vehicle and Koi, Kali, Madden, and I would get to ride in a Harbor Compound vehicle.

Unlike the plan, Koi and Kali are at our side in seconds, their calm walk somehow disappearing in just a few strides. “The room was bugged. I saw one around a few tables. I’m not sure what they were listening for, but when I went back to get my coat I didn’t see any near our table. Something more sinister is going on here, but I don’t think it has to do with us. Chamberlain told us that he singled us out because we looked new. He said it was not often newcomers were seen in a lounge that prestigious. He didn’t say anything about Even though. I assume those men bring in guests all the time. We should be safe, but I’m going to put you four on lockdown for a week or two just in case. They need to forget about you and your faces. We can’t risk running into them on any other missions anytime soon.” Koi explains quietly, his pace becoming more relaxed again. I take a deep breath, holding back my anger about lockdown. I hated being quarantined like that, but I understood his concern. If anything, Even would hate it more than I would. As we come up to the cars I look back at the inconspicuous building and smile, whatever Even had, he had enough to leave early, and enough feel confident as he left.

Even though my responsibilities were minimal, my heart swelled knowing that we were ever closer to finding my brother, and ending years of torment for so many others. No matter what Even got today, it was more than we had yesterday, and I am more than happy to consider that a job well done.

Advertisements

The Letter {1943}

Dear Miss Malikov,

It appears you are needed. Report to my office immediately. Attached are train tickets to DC. Immediately.

I hope all is well. I, personally, do not keep track of your affairs, but if at all possible I would like to request the presence of Ben too. This war is not over and it will not be over soon, I hope you know.

The reason I ask for Ben is short and concise. You two need to work together, which if what I am assuming is correct, you are not a stranger to. There is an opportunity for you two in the eastern lands. At the moment, this is the only thing I can disclose. Desperate times call for desperate measures, no lies there.

Praise the Lord, and Long Live These Great United States,

Colonel Lewis, June 9, 1943

 

I stare at the letter in the middle of my kitchen. Louis looks at me from the small dining table. “Lewis?” He asks quietly and I nod. There was never time. Louis had to leave for Moscow in less than a week. This small week in Virginia was all we had left. After all he had taught me in St. Petersburg, and in Leningrad, it would be hard to leave a man like Louis Antonov behind.

As for Ben, he left after he saw Louis kiss me back in Germany. Ben didn’t understand, I had been falling for him, but when he left Louis was there, warm and waiting. I didn’t expect it to develop into anything, truly, but then Louis kept coming. To my house, to my job, and into my life. It was like a storm I couldn’t stop, but the thoughts of Ben Hoffmann that always happened to permeate my thoughts. No matter the connection Louis and I shared in the Soviet Union, there will always be this pull between Ben and I.

“I have to go.” I say quietly not looking at the Russian boy. From the corner of my eye I see him stand and nod.

“I’ll be here when you get back. Waiting.” He walks out of the room and I run a hand through my loose hair. The tickets fall out of the back of the envelope, I had almost forgotten them entirely. There were two. One for myself, and one for Ben. I would only be using one. Ben was probably back in Arbor Town, or maybe he was already in Washington. It was impossible to know the whereabouts of the German. Frankly, I’m not sure I had the energy to find him.

As per usual, Lewis’s letter made me exhausted. I was prepared for this, and pulled open the drawer under the oven to find a bag all nicely packed, perfect for the international espionage that was about to partake. Not even Louis had known about the bag, and I wanted to keep it that way, before the temperamental man came out of his room to try and persuade me not to leave, I grabbed the bag and a hat and left. I knew there would be no turning back, and I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to come back to Louis. Not that Louis anyways. I wanted the Louis who would stay up and teach me to read Russian, or who would show me all of the little quirks of Leningrad or St. Petersburg. That Louis was my friend. This Louis tread the thin and argumentative line to becoming my enemy.

Virginia was foggy, and I assumed that if Louis had looked out of my window, he wouldn’t have even been able to see me leave. Maybe a glimpse, but even then, it would be just enough to know the intentions of my departure. Lewis was right, the war was not over. The war may never be over, but even then, a war is a war. No matter how long it takes it will not be an easy war. That’s why Lewis needs operatives like Ben and myself. That is the least I can do for my country, Louis should expect nothing less, after all, that is exactly what he does for the Soviets.

 

Washington was not foggy. It was sunny and clear, yet people still looked grim. Three years of war had not left the center of this nation happy or at ease. Everyone was strained, economically, politically, socially, and most of all physically. Our fathers, sons, brothers, and friends were out fighting a power that was surely capable of our total destruction. Lewis wanted me to walk straight into the den of that beast, straight towards the eagle of death, and I was happy to comply.

Lewis’s office was a boxy grey building that wouldn’t stick out to any passerby, and it was meant to be that way. Somebody with as much government experience as Lewis needed to be hidden, the extent of our espionage was not something the public needed to know. The interior was cold, and I hugged my slim fitting jacket to my body, holding the bag in the crook of one arm. His waiting space was behind a closed wooden door, one of those invitation only type deals, but his secretary, Anne Towers let me in every time, regardless of a proper invitation. The waiting room was empty, as it usually was, except for a soldier bent over, elbows resting on his knees. His face was blocked from view, but his uniform suggested navy. I had never met a man in the navy. It was unlike Lewis to recruit someone who had just come home from service, and from the looks of the disheveled man sitting in the chair, he had just come home. When he looked up I realized who it was. The blonde hair, strong jaw, confident blue eyes. It was Ben. He was here.

“Ben.” I say quietly, taking a step back and blinking several times, making sure my tired eyes were correct. He stands, gripping his navy cap between his hands with white knuckles. His eyes, usually so full of this hidden magic, were darker, droopy even.

“I’m sorry if I had known-” His crisp white navy uniform crinkles as he tries to exit the room.

“You enlisted?” My words stop him in his tracks and he looks perplexed for a second, only a fraction of a second, before shaking his head and sitting back down in defeat.

“So you didn’t get the letter? Well, doll, it appears you missed when I asked you if I should enlist.” My hands clasp in front of me and I take a step forward before stopping, he seemed mad, and I wasn’t about to get near an angry Ben Hoffmann, not when I didn’t know how he would react to me. “You ran off with him, and I- well, I felt like I had no reason to stay in the US, moping and waiting for you, so I left. Not left, more like enlisted. I served under Halsey, strange man, but it was eye-opening.”

“So, you’re okay?” I ask, treading water within a conversation. It had been only a few months, but it had felt like an eternity had passed. He was different, changed in the strangest ways.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” He wipes his brow with the back of his hand, tilting his head to look down at me. “Lewis had to call me in from active duty. I arrived last night.”

“Ben I swear I didn’t get that letter-”

“Don’t worry, Carina, I wouldn’t put it past that tool of yours to hide your mail.” And there it was. His anger and resentment towards the Russian boy. A part of me deep inside knew what Ben was revealing was true, but I couldn’t bear it. He comes back and instead of embrace me or even miss me he just disgraces my friend. Once, Louis was his friend too. I remember that.

“I did not come here to disgrace my friend’s name. Just know, Ben, that if I could have I would have stopped you, I would have made you realize your necessity here.” Ben chuckles and takes my hand lightly. It is only a gesture, there is no meaning behind it, that much I can see in his eyes.

“As much as you think I need you, I needed enlistment too. I learned things I couldn’t have possibly learned here watching you and him.” He says in a rather bitter tone.

“Do you not hear me? I’m saying I would have fought for you…” I whimper.

“Yes, well, I fought for my country. I fought for what’s right. I fought to keep you safe even after I felt you had betrayed me. After he had betrayed me. I’m tired of fighting Cora. I need honesty and something certain. Out there, on that boat, my life wasn’t certain. Coming home and seeing you again wasn’t certain, but Lewis needed me, so I am here. So, when you are ready to be honest and faithful to someone who isn’t Russian or your superior, maybe our friendship can exist again.” His words were clear and honest. Just like he needed me to be. I wanted to pour out to him, scream at him, hit him. If I were being honest, it was he who abandoned me. Louis was my friend, yes, but Ben, Ben was my partner. It wasn’t Lewis or enlistment that had initially separated us, it was Ben. Before I could retaliate on my own, Lewis stepped out of his office.

“A welcome meeting I’m sure.” Ben turns from me sharply at the sound of our superior’s voice.

“Yes sir, quite nice. Now, do you want to meet with me first or Miss Malikov?” Lewis furrows his brow at Ben’s formal dialect, but quickly straightens himself looking to me instead. I, in the interest of holding my tongue and not waging all out war against my partner, give a weak smile to Lewis, which appears to confuse the poor man even more. Last he saw we were sharing a heartfelt homecoming after returning from our European stations. He clearly hadn’t seen us since.

“Well, surely she told you this would be a joint mission? I’ll need to meet with both of you at once.” He says and Ben chuckles, running a hand through his hair with the left hand and wadding up his navy cap even more with his right.

“My apologies, sir. We hadn’t exactly reached that part of the conversation yet.” Ben steals one more suspicious glance at me before following Lewis into his office. Once inside we both sat. His familiar decor put some of my nerves to rest, but the tension surrounding Hoffmann still stood as a barrier between the two of us.

“So, I am sorry to have to tell you two this, but if all goes well this will be your last mission with us during this war. God hope it will end soon. I need the two of you to pose as a married couple in Nuremberg. The personal information is in the files you two will receive, background and such. While in Nuremberg, Ben you will work closely with government officials and Carina you will work with the locals and the families of government officials. You will have one month to prepare before we send you to the location. You will fly into Britain and then take the train to Nuremberg. Risky, but necessary. You will stay in Nuremberg until it is safe to evacuate you directly. When it is safe your mission will be accomplished. There is a lot to train for, for instance teaching Carina some deeper German, her surface level German is impeccable but I want her German to be as good as her Russian. Oh, and look the part. I don’t know what the hell is going on between you two, but I thought at least one of you would be thrilled about this. Look, Ben is your apartment settled?” I look to Ben, unaware he had an apartment at all. When he had been here last he took care of his parents in Pennsylvania in the hopes of deterring discrimination because of their German heritage. Certainly at the height of the war he wouldn’t live by himself by choice.

Ben doesn’t glance at me, but continues to stare at Lewis. “Yes sir. I had just been able to set up everything before I came here. Thank you again for giving me accomodations.” Lewis nods and smiles.

“Thank me again later. For the one month of preparation I want you two sharing a living space. Getting used to your marital confines if that makes sense, and hopefully solving whatever drama this is between you two. I’m not as old as I look. If I know anything, I know my agents, and I know you two. Either way, I guess I have to be the adult here and tell you to get the fuck over it. Now, any questions?” His sly smile made me roll my eyes, but I wasn’t about to turn and recognize Ben’s reaction. I stand and gather myself, running a hand through my hair before finally letting my eyes glance across Hoffmann.

I regretted it.

His face was blank, devoid of emotion. I quickly turned my attention to Lewis, not wanting to look at Ben for longer than I had to. “Sir, I don’t have any questions, but I am sure he does, so I will go collect my things from my apartment if I can just get the address to Ben’s apartment.” Lewis opens his mouth but Ben answers first, cold, icy words.

“3200 Garden Avenue, apartment 344. Lewis, how long do I have to ask questions?” Ben remarks taking a jab at me with his words. I shake my head and walk out of the room, repeating the address in my head to fight the anger I feel at him.

“I don’t have time for a romance, tragedy, whatever the hell Shakespeare wrote. Take your problems and leave them in the waiting room kiddo. She is staying with you and that’s an official order. I’ll meet with you both later. Now, do you have any actual substantial questions? The look on your face tells me you want to bitch, but that’s not what they pay me for.” Lewis shuffles papers, probably to pretend he was busier than he actually was. I turn around, seeing Ben’s stiff frame in the doorway.  

“Be moved in by tomorrow. I’ll have lunch for you tomorrow.” He says as politely as he can manage before walking briskly out of the office, brushing past me forcefully as he does so.

“I said, get over it. That includes you girly. I expect you to solve this. My plans aren’t going to change for you two, so get used to it.” Lewis says in parting, closing his office door and leaving me stranded in the waiting room, trying to compose my thoughts into one succinct whole.

A friend I thought I lost came back, yet he wasn’t my friend and I had lost him all over again. Now he was my husband, and in two months time we would be airlifted to the most dangerous place on Earth and expected to act normal. My world was shattered, but I knew. I didn’t want to see Louis again tonight.

Hurrying out of the office I find Ben walking briskly down the street. “Hoffmann!” I call after him, hoping to score my last shot in hell. He doesn’t turn around immediately, so I will my legs to move faster, despite the slight pain I feel from my heels.

When I’m five feet behind him, my heels clearly audible, I call again. “Ben. Let me stay with you. Just for tonight, and I’ll move my stuff in tomorrow. Please. I can’t go home.” I say, my voice strong at first but tapering off as I realize the weight of my words. My life was over. That perfect little life I had carved out for Louis and I was effectively gone. I didn’t want that anymore. I couldn’t want that. My life had been rerouted, and I was confident it was for the better. I wouldn’t let this go, no matter how scarily drastic the change is.

“Forcing yourself on me won’t make me forgive you, or want to be close with you again.” He says, finally stopping to turn around and face me. I have to stop short, almost colliding with him.

“That wasn’t my intention, I just-”

“As long as that’s clear, you can stay. Like I said, my opinion of you isn’t going to change anytime soon, so I don’t want you to get your hopes up.” He grumbles. I move forward to stand beside him, our eyes locked.

“Don’t worry. It won’t be the first time I have been let down.” I say, my snark sneaking through. Ben chuckles, a noise that shocks me, but strangely enough, also warms my heart. That was the friend I missed. That was the friend I thought I had lost. I keep my eyes to the ground as my smile breaks free.

“My German teaching was inadequate, I know. Lewis never let me hear the end of it, I assure you.” He attempts to joke, when we both knew his teaching was impeccable. If he knew anything, it was how to make a Russian sound like a born and bred German girl. That was either the scariest thing about him, or the most impressive.

“Very funny. I’m sure they loved you trying to force German on them when you were out on that boat.” I try to quip back, but this one does not receive a chuckle.

“Glad to see you still think I’m stupid. Of course I didn’t speak German on that boat. I would have been thrown overboard.” As he speaks his uniform seems to become brighter, as if I had offended him and his uniform.

“No, no. It was merely a joke, don’t get all fussy over a joke, we were back on the right track.” I can practically hear him roll his eyes over my words. He doesn’t say anymore though, not until we get in front of a black oak door. The key clicks as it turns in the knob, and then we are inside our home for the next two months.

In this instance, ‘home’ was a forced term, but as soon as I stepped inside the cozy apartment, all my worries and restricting connotations seemed to fade away. There is a small living room with a couch and a radio, with a small hallway off the side that leads to a kitchen. There is another hallway just off the other side of the living room that leads to two small bedrooms. I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. At least there were two rooms. That was perhaps the part that charmed me the most.

Ben passes me, moving swiftly down the hall to one of the bedrooms. I suppose the other one would be mine then. I pull myself up along my spine, correcting my sagging, pessimistic position, and moving down the hall towards my room.

It was sparsely decorated. Not that I minded. The bed was white, the walls were white, the accent furniture was white, it was reminiscent of an asylum. Yet, to me, it still felt more like home than my apartment did at the moment. I set my bags on the bed, disrupting the rhythm of the room with their noisy colorful presence. After allowing myself a moment to sigh and let out all the pressure that was held inside me, I began unpacking. I put my toiletries aside, knowing I would take them to the bathroom later. My haphazardly folded clothes fell in a jumbled mess across the bed, and I hung them in the small closet as fast as possible to keep them from looking worse. My mother’s journal and the picture of Ben, Louis, and I in St. Petersburg I put in the nightstand next to the bed.

I was stopped by light tan parchment, scrawling handwriting, so unexpected and endearing I knew I couldn’t put stuff over it yet. He was always one step ahead of us. Always expecting my next move with near perfect precision.

 

Sweet Miss Malikov,

I hope you know this won’t be your room for long. When I surveyed the apartment I knew the temptation of two rooms would draw you two apart. I ask you to please remember your mission, remember why I brought you two back together in the first place. While he often sees you as a renegade, an independent soldier of your own misgivings, I know you different. At your core, your allegiance is to this country. So, put aside the awkward and unforgiving consequences that could result, and make him see. The weight of the world rests on your shoulders if my calculations are correct. Be sure you convince him.

Do not be cross with me. I trust your capabilities, but I also know you two better than you think. Your soft exteriors only last for so long, especially in the face of tension. In order to survive you will have to convince me, Germans, Nazis, travel officials, the whole nine yards. Yet, the only one I care about is that you convince yourselves. He will not fall willingly. Ben is a stubborn man, but I feel like if you and I work together, we can wear him down.

I am having lunch with him on June 10. A day after you should arrive at his residence, assuming I understand your drive and persistence. I’m sure you can get something prepared while he is out?

With utmost respect and confidence,

Colonel Lewis, June 1, 1943

P.S. I hope you enjoy the residence, I made it as customizable as possible.

 

I sit on the bed, letter clutched tightly in my hand. Convince him? How does he expect me to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced? The men in the bar were easy targets, with a little bit of alcohol and a pretty girl in their sights you could get them to say almost anything. Ben was not one of those men. He, like Lewis apparently, knew me better than that.

I put the photo and journal in the nightstand, carefully folding up the letter while I contemplate. Ben and Lewis would be gone to lunch tomorrow, most likely to discuss the war and his sudden return. Knowing Ben, he would also manage to insert his angered sentiments about our mission, about me.

My eyes linger on the photo before I close the drawer. I stood in between the German and the Russian, our arms resting on each others shoulders. Louis and I were smiling, clearly in our element, but Ben would offer little more than a smirk. He would say the lack of expression was to be professional, but I knew the truth. Russia scared the shit out of him. He was scared of the unknown, of the fear and worry that surrounded Russian attitudes towards Germans. Maybe that’s how it was with me. Even I didn’t know where we stood. We had been so close, closer than I had been with anyone other than Shirley.

I could write her. I could tell her in the simplest terms possible what was going on. But, how? How could I communicate the jumbled mess I was feeling in something she would understand. I would have to tell her the truth. Something she could never know, not until the Allied flags waved over every fascist shithole in Europe. We would be safe then, it would be safe, but surely by then it would be too late.

I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped my lips. I needed comfort, I needed my best friend, but I was stuck with the boy that would probably refrain from talking to me unless he absolutely had to. I couldn’t go to Lewis either. He wouldn’t stand my bitchy feelings for long. He didn’t like knowing me like that, even though he did, as it was clearly stated in the letter I received.

Ben stood in the doorway, but knocked on the frame before barely stepping in. His hands were in his pockets and he looked down at the floor. I closed the nightstand drawer before he saw the photo. Who knows how he would relate to a memento like that? I wasn’t ready to find out. “I will be going to lunch tomorrow with Lewis. I asked if he wanted me to invite you, and he said no. I didn’t want you to be confused or offended. There are a few things for dinner in the cupboards, don’t wait for me to eat.” He finishes quickly, backing out of the room and closing the door behind him.

I would never understand him. He didn’t want me to be offended, yet he was giving me the cold shoulder with something that seemed as trivial as dinner. It wasn’t like I expected a candlelit dinner or anything fancy. I was already overstepping my bounds, even though that was what Lewis knew I would do, and I did not want to make Ben go any further to make me comfortable. Lord knows he would hate that, going the extra mile for a house guest and all.

I stare at the closed door, bringing the letter to my chest. How was I gonna do it? The task seemed impossible, but I knew, I just knew, I would find a way. Even being so far away, I knew Lewis knew I would too.

Understanding: A Fueled Story

“Do you enjoy hurting people?” I frown, crossing my arms and staring at him from the doorway. Tate turns around, mumbling under his breath as he goes to his small knapsack by the closet. The others were asleep, but we were both wide awake. Now was probably the seldom time that I would be thankful Tate and I shared a room. At least now when I chewed him out and got angry, they wouldn’t be able to hear, or at least they wouldn’t be too bothered by it. “We have to lead a group of people and the example you choose to set is stealing candy from a baby-”

“Don’t you get it?! The world isn’t happy and fun and safe all the time! I figured you of all people would know that by now. What with your family probably being dead? Yeah. I guess not.” I cross my arms and let the frown sink into my tired face. He looks up at me with a similar scowl, and doesn’t seem at all eager to change his ways.

“We didn’t need it. Not like she did-”

“What would they have done, Cara? This was our last viable raid, god forbid if they hear that. We had to give them something!”

“What about the starving girl?” I cry, throwing my hands up in the air, and watching with malice as he lays back nonchalantly on his bed, hands behind his head.

“What about her? Someone will give her food. If she is truly as starving as you recall, someone will find her something. I was thinking about my group and the needs of my people. If you truly want to help me lead, I suggest you start doing the same. We won’t survive a day with this charitable soul of yours. Pssh, hell, we wouldn’t be comfortable living another week here with an attitude like yours. She will find something. I gave her our grapes. It’s not as much as you would have given her, but I didn’t let the poor thing go empty handed. We have enough, but we don’t need to give away our rations to one person. Now, will you shut up so I can sleep?” He concludes, as if ashamed he even gave the girl food in the first place. My mouth hangs open slightly, and I attempt to hide my shock as I close the door behind me.

“Thank you for doing that. I had no idea you did. Why didn’t you tell me? I was practically in tears on the way home!” I say, running a hand through my hair before resting my head in my hands. He looks at me now, his anger having subsided greatly.

“You would have to learn rational thought eventually. In truth, I wasn’t planning on telling you at all, but I knew you would never shut the hell up if I didn’t.” He grumbles, his blue eyes staying connected with me as I talk. Something about the eyes. Pascal had mentioned it before. Something about his eyes told me what he truly wished to say, but this time I couldn’t read it.

“Tate, I-”

“Am I going to get to sleep?” He grumbles, turning over on his side to get himself nestled under the covers before looking at me again, this time with annoyance. That I could read clearly.  

I smirk. “Nope. I want you to tell me why you won’t let anyone see you as a good person. Out of all the people here, you think you would at least be able to trust me.”

“Every second you keep me up is a second I trust you less.” Tate wipes his eyes, scrunching his nose like a child. I suppose rooming with him did allow me to catch glimpses of the Tate he wouldn’t let anyone else see. The extremely attractive male who was also sometimes not an asshole? It was quite the conundrum. Not one I wanted to get close to, but one I wanted to understand. I mean, if I was going to have to work alongside him I might as well know the dude on a more personal level.

“Tate.”

“Sweetheart, don’t ask questions that will only disappoint you.” He rolls over to his other side as if that would keep him from my pestering. Every second I kept him up, was a second of revenge for all of his rude remarks and crude behavior. My smirk persists happily.

“I didn’t ask a question. I made a demand.”

“Look. You seem nice enough. I’d disappoint you. If you come off as an asshole, nobody gets hurt. I don’t want to hurt anybody more than I have to. I just want to stay alive, and if that means bringing you guys with me, then I will gladly do it. Gladly. Now, that is the only ‘demand’ I will allow you to make tonight. Let me get some rest so that I don’t bite your head off tomorrow.”

“Goodnight Tate. If it helps, so far you’ve only impressed me.”

“You aren’t original, go to bed.” I roll my eyes at his response, knowing he was hiding a smirk of some kind on the other side of the bed. As loud as I could possibly make it, I climb beneath my own covers, trying not to laugh as I blow out the candle on the nightstand.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Cara.”

Decode {1939}

“Sing the alphabet. Not the english one either. I’ll remind you, I was hired to teach you.” Louis says, running a hand through his hair before sitting back in his chair. We could hear Lewis talking in his office next door, but I still felt completely isolated from him within the closed room. “Pay attention.”

My head snaps back to Louis and Ben chuckles from his armchair in the corner, a paper open in his lap. I glared at him and began singing the Russian alphabet. The grey walls seemed to close in on me as I sang, and I became all too aware of the close quarters. Louis and I sat at a small table next to a short bookcase, the two of us resting on wooden chairs. Ben was in the far corner, required to attend training even though he wasn’t being helped at the moment. There were two armchairs in that corner, Ben taking up one, with a lamp in between. We were sure the room was initially supposed to be a broom closet, but Lewis had turned it into an unsuspecting office and training center. On the outside it looked like nothing more than a filing cabinet, but inside were future agents, training to end the impending war.

I finish with a breath and Louis gives me a dazzling smile. It became harder for me to concentrate around him, however much I hated to admit it. “Very good, much better than your last lesson.” Ben mumbles something in German and both boys laugh.

It was impossible to stop my glare at Ben, he knew I didn’t know German, hell I barely knew Russian, hence my butchered alphabet. “Calm down, fraulein. I didn’t say anything mean.” Ben said coyly in the thickest German accent he could muster. I resisted the urge to punch him. He was an asshole. He had been since I met him, yet he was the only one I felt close to here. Lewis was a good man, I couldn’t deny that, but he felt more like an owner than a friend. Louis, while mysterious and suave was still worlds away as my tutor. Ben was there. He was going through the same things I was, feeling the same pressures and confusion. He understood, and whether he was an asshole or not, I could not deny that he could relate to me.

Lewis walked into the room before I could throw any punches. “Louis you are needed with Colonel Hodges downstairs. Leave her assignments with her, I am sure Ben will make sure she stays diligent.” Lewis says with a smile, his salt pepper hair cascading down his face in a way that assures me he had gotten little sleep in the past few days.

“Yes sir.” Louis says, leaving a single piece of paper in front of me before hurrying out of the room. I had never met Hodges, but I knew his department was kept a secret, kind of like Lewis, but if possible it was more elite and more dangerous.

“Don’t let his absence deter you, get to it.” Lewis smiles, clapping me on the back with a strong hand before moving out of the room and closing the door. Ben chuckles.

“What a productive day. The war in Europe is escalating and we are reading the papers and learning preschool Russian. Fabulous.” Ben says sarcastically, lighting a cigarette in front of his mouth.

“No smoking in here. The smoke would surely kill the both of us.” I reply, pulling the fresh cigarette out of his mouth and smashing it in the ashtray. He sighs, but doesn’t fight it.

“Cigarettes don’t kill nobody. War kills people.” He continues grumbling, and I roll my eyes, momentarily forgetting about my worksheets in order to argue with my counterpart.

“So what? You want to go on the front lines with no training whatsoever? What is the point? Truly, explain to me what we could possibly gain from that? At best we would lose our lives.” I’m on the edge of my seat now, facing him head on. His cold eyes bore into my own, his posture unforgiving. “You may feel sure of yourself with now, but war destroys people it- it-”

“You can say fuck, fraulein.” He mocks me again with that fraulein bullshit, a smirk forming on his face from his minor victory.

“War fucks people up. If the strongest man in the world can’t handle it, then surely you can’t either.” I snap back, not wanting him to hold on to victory for long. His paper is long forgotten, sitting in the armchair next to him.

“Lewis had me on the front lines. I was his German liaison. Then you came along and fucked it up. Yes. If my predictions are correct, you are the hardest war I will ever fight, but I expect to win. At the rate you are learning, you won’t last a month in this program. Give it time, doll. I’ve seen girls like you crumble in a week. You do Lewis’s dirty work, bedding soldiers, convincing them to tell their secrets, now what? You can’t survive war either-”

“That’s why I’m training. He just saw a German last name and selected you at random. You think we are on the same playing field? No. Hell no. I worked to be here. I’m working to fight for my country. Doing more than any American girl could ever dream. And what are you? Men are lining up to enlist, yet you are here. With me. Learning – what did you call it? – preschool Russian. I bet you feel mighty proud right now. If you want to be on the front lines so bad Hoffmann, then enlist. I know you can’t handle it, but if you still have unnaturally large ideas of yourself, by all means, go enlist and get the fuck out of my face.” His face softens. His brother was in the air force, he was here. I had hit a nerve. His never ending pride had been injured. Ben sat back in his seat, holding his breath. Then he smirked.

“Get to work, Soviet. We have a long war ahead of us, don’t we?” His words didn’t bite as much, even the nickname he had scaled back on. Soviet would do much better, but I still wasn’t eager to work with him.

Before I can stop him, or even muster a retort, he stands and moves to sit next to me. “Find a sheet of loose leaf paper. I’m going to teach you German.” Learning languages was easy enough, but decoding Ben Hoffmann? That was a battle – a war – I wasn’t sure I would win.

Phlegethon: A Carina Malikov Story {1945}

We were too late, so we ran. Luggage in hand our feet padded down the cobbled roads. First to the closest way out of town, the flooding of Nazi soldiers cut that one down though, so sharply we moved on, to the clogged and crowded backroads and side streets. Then the acrid smoke filling the passages from burning corpses and buildings kept us sheltered in the city to a greater extent.

He gripped my hand.

I held my breath.

The streets were cluttered, my mind was blank. I held my luggage tightly in one hand, the other clutching Ben’s with white knuckles. The darkness helped to shroud us, but it didn’t help, we could be hit either way. Pilots only saw what they wanted to: large Nazi flags and gilded eagles with close trimmed mustaches and swastika adorned ribbons. They couldn’t see the spies who were doing their best. The spies who went in knowing there may be no way out.

The only person who knew we were here was the one person who couldn’t help us, despite his status and fancy ribbons.

I took a breath, inhaling the jet black smoke, and was jerked to the side, my luggage swinging like a pendulum.

“Carina!” He screamed, his hand losing touch from mine as Nazi soldiers pulled us apart from one another. He dropped his luggage to try and reach for me, but failed. The Nazi picked up his luggage and pushed him along in front of me, believing Ben to be a good Aryan man. He still had his uniform pants on from the night before. He was still distinguishable.

“Come, be safe.” They say in harsh German, the tone of the Fuhrer dripping from their lips. A phlegethon streaked from within the darkness of the sky, a conscious stream of light, from a bomb of course, and a conscious symbol as well. This was the last hope. Screams rip through the night as the SS soldier pulls me along with him intently, hustling my soot covered body to a shelter. At least I think he said shelter. Ben would know, but my mind wasn’t very good at processing languages in times like this. I couldn’t process much of anything in fact, except for the everlasting night, billowing smoke, and the screams. Sirens can scream, but so can the people, and so were the people, burning people.

“Carina!” Ben calls again, his arms clawing for me past the bulk which is the Nazi. His body was attempting to turn 180 degrees while still walking forward with the SS officer. The other one, the taller one, grabs him again, and pulls him forward, further in front of me, hustling us down a flight of stairs. A baby wails in the distance as we are shoved into a tunnel underground, the soldiers running back up when they have “safely” deposited their cargo.

We are then left in a world of darkness. A cellar by the looks of it. The smell of urine and sweat filled the densely packed tunnel, and only eyes and outlines could be seen in the bleak darkness. People stare, as if waiting for us to do something. I stare back. I wait for them to speak up while my eyes adjust and my ears relax from the heavy sounds and sirens of battle occurring fifteen feet above us.

He pulls himself against me, holding me tight to him as we shuffle to find a place among the small crowd that had gathered in the wine cellar. More crashing and booming. The baby cries from somewhere next to us and a woman screams. “Shut up or they will come for us again.” I hear next to the woman and she stifles a cry of acknowledgement. Our neighbors. The Steins.

“Sofia.” I whisper, and I can see her figure shift towards me. Norman looks too, I can see his boxy outline better than I can see his wife’s slight, delicate one. Ben’s grip on me tightens.

“Helene? You made it? Is that Ben with you? Are you okay? Is the baby okay?” Hearing her voice return to a motherly glamour calmed me in the slightest, until I realized I was supposed to be pregnant. I wasn’t, of course. Ben and I had never laid hands on each other in that way. We just had to pretend to in order to keep cover. Ben had already lost his cover name, Bernon, and had gone by Ben as a nickname. We were too deep in to stop, so Lewis suggested we go deeper, and we did.

“Yes, Sofia, the baby is fine and we are here, safe. Bless the reich we are safe.” I sigh and Ben moves a hand to my stomach, where the baby should be, as if covering up the lie itself.

“Thank god the soldiers found you two. Such young lives, those filthy heathens should not take that away from Germany.” Sofia says, her strong love of the fuhrer seeping out of her as if she, herself, had been shot.  “No matter what happens, Germany will remain strong because of young, courageous survivors like you two. Now, Norman, I’m going to try and sleep, hold my ears so I can try my best.”

Norman tries to shuffle Sofia into the back corner to help her sleep better, and when they get back there I hear him sing to her. Ben tries to the same thing, only in the opposite corner, to shuffle back and face each other, our back against the curving walls. Ben sets our luggage up in the corner so we can lean against it, and then grabs my hand once more. “Have you told them we are leaving? Or that we were trying to leave?” Ben whispers, and I shake my head no, knowing that even in the dim light he can see it.

“I wouldn’t dare. We need to get out.” He nods and squeezes my hand.

“I’m just glad we are alright.” Ben sighs and leans his head against the wall of the shelter, until another bomb hits and he is sitting straight up looking towards the entrance of the cellar. I pat the spot on the ground next to me and he moves closer to myself and to the entrance. It is unsure what he expects us to be able to do, but his alert posture suggests he has a plan. Ben always had a plan.  Another bomb drops, the whine echoes in the small tunnel, and I hold my breath. I couldn’t see, and the ringing was nearly causing me not to hear, but I knew we didn’t have much time left. It was now or never.

The woman next to us has her eyes on us, and our luggage. Her daughter is sleeping, or trying to, on the floor in front of her. They were all trying to hang on to whatever normalcy they could find. Amidst the dropping bombs and burning carcass of Nuremberg they were still trying to sleep as if everything would be fine. I admired them, in all their irrational courage to sleep in the face of death, but between here and Moscow I had learned something valuable: never underestimate death.

“They will come back down with more people. When they leave, we leave. Discretely, behind them. They wouldn’t expect people to leave a shelter in the middle of an allied attack. We take our suitcases and follow. The train tracks are close to here. We follow them from the brush, and get out of this city. We get out of this city and out of this country. There is nothing left for us here.” Ben whispers, his breath tickling my ear, and I can barely hear him over the wailing and sirens. I just know he is there. That’s all I need. The air seems to still, holding itself like bated breath. I could see Ben’s eyes in the dim light. He was ready.

The Nazis entered the quiet bunker, filling it with noise and movement. People at the base of the steps hurried to get out of their way before they were trampled by the immaculate black boots of the SS. The soldiers screamed in German, Ben and I looked at each other warily. They were screaming quiet. “Ruhig! Ruhig!”

Ben’s hand finds my arm and he holds tight. “When they leave, we leave.” He repeats, noting the tension in the air. It was looking like this was truly our last chance. The men tell us to sit and be patient, that Germany is on the verge of victory. Ben squeezes my arm at that. They were calming us down before death. They tell us to be quiet again and march up the stairs. Ben crawls across the floor, sticking the wall so not to be seen, and I follow him. We crawl up the stairs behind the nazis, wide eyes watching us, including those of Norman and Sofia, both wide awake with Nazi ruckus. Ben has our suitcases in hand, crouched over like a hunchback as he slides out the door behind the Nazis. He was only out of my sight for two seconds but shouting ensues. They spotted him. I leap out of the tunnel in time to push a Nazi out of the way suddenly his armband clad arm attempts to slam down on Ben’s skull.

You reject safety for death? You reject the reich!” One screamed at us in German, coming to smack me across the face. As his calloused hand made contact with my cheek, my fist made contact with his jugular. Strongest fighting force in the world? Please. If you can’t block a throat punch can you even call yourself a soldier?

Ben is to my side, trying to wrestle a gun out of the other Nazi’s hand. A shot goes off and I whip my head to look at them while still trying to get out of the radius of my nazi. Ben’s nazi is on the ground and I see his nametag: Geiger. Ben had taught me during war not to learn the names of the enemy, but that was the name of our mission here, and now I would be able to add another name to the list of many Germans we would lose.

“Carina!” Ben yells as the other Nazi’s knee collides with my stomach. I stumble back, trying to carefully control my breathing. It was going to be okay. When I have caught my breath and can look up from my bent over position I see Ben with the Nazi’s gun in hand and his other hand pressing against the Nazi’s throat. “Let us go and I won’t shoot you.”

I don’t wait to see what happens next. I’m cleaning up our suitcases, some of which have spilled across the dirt, getting lost in the dark of night. Ben pulls me up by my arm as I close the final suitcase. “Let’s go, more will be coming soon.” I knew he shot him. I didn’t hear the shot, but I wasn’t listening for it. I didn’t want to listen for it. Ben had to do things only a soldier could do. Only someone who had lost part of themselves could shoot their own countrymen point blank.

We follow the tracks, the only sound existing is of crackling fire and our own heavy breathing. A train comes barreling down the tracks after a couple of hours walking near the brush. Ben runs towards the train and I move as fast as my weary legs can to catch up with him. An empty train car was coming up, and we were going to jump on it. For better or for worse. 

We were getting out of Nazi Germany.

Moving In: A Fueled Story

“On second thought, I’d rather live with him.” She says, brushing her hair back with her muddy hands and moving to the corner. Pascal tries to be innocent as she moves closer to Chris, but I see the gleam in her eyes. She just wants to force me into a shared room with Tate. Of course. The master of deliberation and schemes has bested me yet again. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t help the betrayed expression that slides onto my face. If there was any gasoline left I would definitely douse her in it.

“Really? Are you sure you don’t want a girls room… That might be the safest thing.” Tate says, stepping forward, his five o’clock shadow looking even darker in the setting sun. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised that Tate was the one to step forward, but he was. He and I acted as our leaders I suppose, even if we disagreed on almost every single issue we faced. Except for this one. I was planning on running full force with this agreement while it still lasted.

“Look, I know neither one of us want to have to change, or do anything private of that nature in front of one of these goons, no offense.”
Tate shrugs. “None taken.”

“It’s a matter of privacy, Pascal. This world has become a cesspool of disease and rot, I’m simply trying to keep us as comfortable and sanitary as humanly possible.” She smirks and absentmindedly twirls a lock of her hair between her fingers.

“Look, I’m thinking about protection. You and I wouldn’t be able to save ourselves, well maybe you would, but I wouldn’t. The boys, however, karate kid and Mr. Dark and Gloomy here would be able to take anyone out with ease. Face it, I need Karate Kid to keep myself alive. Now, are we going to keep bickering over this trivial issue? I mean, you have to find your family don’t you? This isn’t a permanent set-up. I’m sure you will get over it eventually, and maybe one day you can even thank you. You know, ‘cause you’re still living.” With that she walks inside without another thought. Chris follows her with an anxious expression. It was true he did have a martial arts background, but the kid was an introvert, and was now being forced to share a room with the most extroverted person on our team. By now everyone realized that in a world without electricity or fossil fuels, we were our own distractions. I’m sure that’s what scared Chris the most.

With their exit, that left Tate and I standing beside each other awkwardly, neither one of us wanting to make the first move into the abandoned vacation home. Neither one of us wanted to admit that we would be okay with sharing a room with one another. Pascal was right in one aspect: Tate was Mr. Dark and Gloomy. There was no denying that.

It wasn’t until Pongo came out that one of us actually moved. Gale, and Pongo had taken the master, which left two more bedrooms for Pascal, Chris, Tate and myself to split. The three had gotten settled long before Pascal had even thought to challenge our partnership.

Pongo looked us up and down, and then rolled his eyes. “There is one room left, and I’m guessing I know what that means. Tate, I thought you at the very least wouldn’t give up without a fight, but now that you have lost, you might as well accept defeat and learn from it my boy.” Pongo pats his good friend on the back and walks off into the forest, probably to identify mushrooms or something.

“Fine.” Tate hissed through gritted teeth as he shoulders his bag and walks inside. I follow him, reluctantly, exactly as Chris had with Pascal. The room was the farthest one down the hall and had two windows, one to the side of each bed. The beds were separated only by a small night stand, but they were far enough apart for me. As long as I wasn’t directly touching Tate, I would be perfectly fine. Absolutely fine. I could make it like we weren’t even sharing a room. I would have my own space and he would have his. It was okay to be like children about this. We were forced to be adults about everything else, so why not have some childish banter with this.

Tate throws his stuff on the bed and proceeds to unpack some of it with an obvious pout. I try to do the same, although the small space between the beds makes it increasingly hard for me to get away from him. Our elbows kept bumping into one another as we tried our best to work, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew Tate had his classic grim frown plastered on his face.

“Tate!” Gale comes in, bracing himself on the doorway as he takes a deep breath. Both Tate and myself whip our heads to the door expecting to hear news of local gangs or maybe some toxic material. His cheeky face breaks into a grin despite his dramatic entrance. “There’s a freshwater spring nearby. Swimming?”

Tate straightens himself as Gale’s smile continues to widen. “Hell yeah. Are the other guys out there?” It was interesting what weird things like a chance to go swim could erase his pouty mood, but it happens. I roll my eyes and continue unpacking.

“Yeah, of course. Chris has already set up a diving board. C’mon let’s go before it gets dark!” Gale says, moving quickly out of the doorway, knowing Tate would follow close behind.

“Don’t wait up for me.” Tate says harshly, the pout returning for a fraction of a second as he speaks to me. As if this were my fault. I wish this were my fault. No. Instead I have to remember that Pascal betrayed me. Friend my ass.

With Tate gone being a dumb teenage boy I finally had room to unpack my things the way I wanted. Of course, this wouldn’t last for long, as when I turn around Pascal sits on the edge of Tate’s bed. “So, my roommate is just delightful, how about yours?”

“Asshole.” I mumble, laying out my pajamas for tonight neatly beside the pillow. The next stack of clothes contain my intimates, and suddenly I’m glad that Tate went swimming. While it was slightly immature of me, I would be royally embarrassed if Tate ever saw them. Another reason I wanted Pascal as my roommate and not the depressed and violent oaf I had now.

Pascal just chuckles and helps me sort through the underclothes sprawled out on my bed. “You won’t be calling me that in a month.”

“You know he hates me now because of you. He blames me. You know that right?” She rolls her eyes and puts a pair of panties in their assigned pile.

“Tate is the poster child for anger, yes, but not for grudges. All you have to do is bat your eyes in the right way and boom! He’ll be all over you. I know that, and I think you know it too. Anyways, he’s not a terrible guy, and honestly the rest of us are tired of you two fighting every time we face a big decision. Chris and I talked before they found that cesspool and decided to take a dive. We want to be sure our leaders won’t lead us to our death. It’s a scary time. Surely we aren’t the only ones wanting certainty.” She says, resting a hand on my shoulder as a gesture of condescending comfort. I knew I shouldn’t take it as it appeared, Pascal was truly trying to comfort me, but I couldn’t help but feel hurt.

“I’ve tried getting along with him, he’s just stubborn and we have different mindsets. Sharing a room with him isn’t going to change that one bit.” I say.

“He isn’t the only one that is stubborn, Cara. Try your best. For the good of the group.” She smiles at me, and I know, despite my reluctance and reservation, I would do it. This group was my family now. I have always protected those who I consider family. Always.

“Am I interrupting something?” Pongo asks, standing in the doorway with a soft smile on his face.

“Of course not! What do you need, Pongo?” Pascal says, both of us smiling at the older man.

“The boys wanted me to call you two out for a swim. After debating for a minute, they told me to come invite you two. No pressure though, however it is a very nice little stream.” Pongo says with a twinkle in his eyes.  I look to Pascal, with her smug smile I know she knows she is right. At least about Tate. The boys will come around. They always do at some point.

“Sure.”

Unwelcome Encounter: A Fueled Story

“Grace, what’d you think this was? You know I don’t do relationships. I tell you that every time, now please… leave me be Grace.” I say, starting to close the door but she forcefully pushes it open, stepping inside my apartment.

“So then I suppose it was fate that my car ran out of gas in front of your apartment Tate.” She says crossing her arms over her chest, I roll my eyes. Grace was a casual hookup, and every single damn time she tried to stay the night I had to shove her out. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but she was annoying. A very good kisser, but a pain in the ass.

“Do you not know how to take a hint?” I ask her carefully, if my tone was ever threatening then she would yell, and the last thing I needed right now was to hear her shrill voice several octaves higher. My roommate was missing and my phone was dead. The campus had run out of oil, and God knows two reckless college aged boys don’t have any candles. My home had been pitch black for a while, and I kinda liked it. It helped calmed me down amidst all the screams and shit that went on through the night.

“Do you know how to treat a girl? Here I am willing to give myself to you and you’re shoving me out on the street. You know how I feel about you Tate, what if we were the last people on Earth?” I knit my eyebrows together.

“Then I still wouldn’t date you Grace. I told you that’s not my thing.” I hadn’t had a solid relationship since Junior year of high school. I loved that girl and did so much for her only to realize she was sleeping with the rest of the lacrosse team. Not a surprise really, she was good at what she did. I didn’t love her for that though, I loved her for her smile and the way she looked up at me during prom like she was having the time of her life. Somewhere deep down I knew she had loved me too, but I didn’t care. The dating scene was no longer for me. I didn’t have to fall in love and wreck my heart to get what I wanted. I was very good at getting what I wanted. I was used to the psycho types like Grace, but Grace in particular just kept coming back.

“Ugh. I should have known you were that type. Well, I suppose you owe me-”

“Grace! I have told you way too many times that I am not that type!” I shout, pointing a shaking hand at the door. I was done with her bullshit and if yelling would get her out then I would do it. She smiled and shook her head. “Whatever this is it was over right after you screamed my name understand? Have a safe walk home, and please never speak to me again.”

“Fuck you, Tate Callahan.” She says before stomping out of my apartment and slamming the door behind her. I sighed and sat back in a chair, running a hand through my hair. It had been a week since Cory had shown up around here. There had been more and more gunshots within the past week, I was starting to get worried. Maybe it was time to go find my Uncle’s shelter and hide out there until the worst stages have passed. My stuff was already packed, and I knew in my gut Cory was dead. My best friend was dead, and my only chances at survival were hiking to the middle of nowhere Oregon.

Normally I was up for challenges, but this one could only end badly. Nothing was certain, nothing was sure. Then again, that was just the way I liked it. A little danger never hurt anyone.

That’s when I made up my mind. At midnight tonight I would leave for Oregon. It would be a hundred miles to his safehouse, roughly three days of travel if I timed it right. Travel during the day, except for tonight which is when I would sneak out and make camp. If I left during the day people would want to come with me, the filthy savages that roam the streets especially. I couldn’t have that. I would be lucky to make it there with the minimal supplies I had. Stragglers certainly wouldn’t help.

My uncle was a prepper. He always said this would happen. There was never a doubt in his mind. After my mom died Uncle Tyler was willing to take me in, him and his buddies always had supplies for years. I just hoped that was still the case. I couldn’t risk going out only to be stranded, but I suppose with no way to communicate with my uncle, I would have to guess.

With all the marauders on the roads now, I was sure I would probably die trying. Somehow dying from some crazy person’s bullet was much more comforting than staying here to rot with the prospect of seeing Grace again. The thought sent shivers down my spine. I probably wouldn’t get any sex until this oil thing was figured out. Damnit. Maybe I should have kept her around. I almost die laughing. That’s too ludicrous of an idea even if it’s for sex.

I make my way slowly into my room to begin packing. About a week ago someone busted open the window of our apartment with their fist and stole Cory’s radio. Ever since then I have to keep reapplying duct tape over the hole to keep people out. Needless to say, last week I ran out of duct tape and I’m pretty fucked if I don’t find some soon. I creep into my room and make sure to check every available crevice before shutting the blinds over the window. Three hours until midnight. The sun was starting to set. I could pack everything in the house in three hours. Hell yes I could.

Dip: An Aoa Story

I dip my hands into the water. My cool skin becomes coated in the flowery scented tonic, easing the pain I felt only slightly. Delia looks at me tenderly, clasping her hands in front of her, her hood drawn close over her hair. If we were in the palace right now she would have gotten Landon. She always trusted Landon over any one of  my ladies. My ladies were supposed to protect me, but she always trusted him. Funny for a handmaid to trust the person I needed the least.

“Was it diving?” She asked, knowing I wouldn’t utter a word unless she did.

“Yes. There was a turtle caught in a crevice. It was too small for him, but he tried to test the odds anyways. I had to help him get out. He would have surely been stuck there for another week or two otherwise. Anyway, I didn’t even cut my hands that bad.”

“Miss Cory. Stop. It was splinter stone, and you could have gotten infected. I know you are new to me taking care of you, but it is sort of my job to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you get yourself into trouble. Now come on, what would Landon think?” She gently pulls my hands out of the bowl, placing them gently on a towel in her lap.

“Landon wouldn’t care. You know he doesn’t care for me like that. It isn’t my place to force him to. What is between us isn’t natural, it is political, and it shouldn’t have been me in the first place. I don’t do this for Landon, I don’t do anything for Landon.” I say more forcefully than I probably should, causing Delia to purse her lips tightly.

“It is what we need, now come on, put this shawl over you and let’s go.” She says quietly, her hood coming further over her face as she turns away from me, cleaning up all of the healing tonics. I pull a shawl over my swimsuit, and pull my hair back with a band. “I respect you, your majesty, I just want you to know your new life now isn’t as carefree as it was when you were just a politician and tactician. Eyes are on you now princess.”

“I’m not a princess yet.” I mumble as we step inside the pod. The automated vehicle sends us through the coastline a little bit before dipping into one of the offroads that leads to the palace. While royalty still used horse drawn carriages for parades and such, the pods were the more economic and efficient modes of transport. I was more used to their speedy delivery anyway, all of this horse-drawn, bumpy road bullshit gave me headaches anyways.

Delia smirks as the pod opens to the palace. Landon stands on the steps, waiting with his arms crossed and face bitter like the slight chill that was in the air. “Cory, we need to talk. Can I escort you to your room?” Despite his regal and firm appearance, he looks like he used to when we were growing up, fragile, afraid, everything his father forced out of him was suddenly coming to the surface.

“Certainly. Delia, if you would kindly bring my belongings up while we walk, I will be with his majesty for the time being.” Delia nods, a giddy smile threatening to break lose. Every time we wished to be alone together she always believed it was so that he could declare his love for me or vice versa. Landon brings his arm up and I take it reluctantly, our elbows knotted together as we enter the palace. This was mainly for looks, before the engagement we would have been perfectly fine with strolling down the halls arm in arm, but now, we didn’t want anything to do with each other. We don’t speak as we walk, knowing Delia is right behind us, but I can feel the weight of the impending conversation like a brick.

My room is on the upper west corridor of the palace, one hallway down from the suites of the royal family. Down my hallway the walls are lined with portraits of the royal family, all staring down at you as you walk. I had never liked it before, and I hated it now. The thought of producing one of the figures in the portraits on the wall made me sick to my stomach, especially at the thought of the involvement of someone who used to be my friend.

I pass by those stoic portraits everyday, and now, with my arm in his the pictures seem menacing, and my breath feels tight in my chest. Landon stops in front of my door, and moves to the side so that Delia can get past and put my stuff away properly. I still wasn’t used to that, but I never said anything of my discomfort because Landon would throw a fit if he knew. Delia was quick to set my things down, she always has been a deft worker, but it still felt like an eternity, waiting in breathless silence with my betrothed.

As she exits I see her devious smile. The formal rules of courting are that we are not allowed to be in a room alone together until our wedding night, but most servants knew to let that rule slide. Delia, with her romantic, fever heart, wouldn’t be the first to question us about that particular rule.

Once the coast is clear, Landon walks inside without waiting for me. I hurry in after him and close the door behind me, not bothering to lock it, even though that is always my first instinct. He clears his throat, and I move to sit on the bed until I realize he has already made himself comfortable. As always, the next best thing will have to do. “So… do you have anything you want to talk about?” I roll my eyes and move from where I had sat in my desk chair to my closet, where I can sift through clothes to distract myself from this brute.

“If you are looking for a confession, I am afraid you are going to come up dry.” I say, pulling a blue tulle dress out of the closet and laying it on an unoccupied part of the bed. Landon is unfazed as I begin to undress from my swimsuit in order to put on the gown. Only Delia would know I didn’t have it on when he first came in. Either way, Landon is no stranger to the female body, and he certainly couldn’t care less about mine.

“Please, for once in your life stop thinking that everyone is out to get you. I was simply asking as a friend.” He crosses his arms over his chest, his feet laid out in front of him.

“We haven’t been friends since you put this ring on my finger.” I say through gritted teeth, pulling the snug dress up over my bossom. He just chuckles.

“I miss your fire. We never get to be ourselves around each other anymore, have you noticed that?” I turn away from him, and he takes the cue to lace up my dress, something he had done many times before.

“It is for the best, Landon.” I turn around and look at him when he finished, the same youthful look still on his face from earlier. I thought surely it would have worn off by now.

“I miss my best friend sometimes. I’m not invincible like you seem to think.”

“If a king isn’t immune to emotions, then he should at least be cognizent of others.” I say from my desk, putting a light powder sheen on my face as he takes in my words. Yes, I was still hurt over the incidents of the night of our engagement. Wouldn’t a bride have every right to be?

“In all honesty, I was escaping the nobles. Lords of the eastern provinces or something of that sort. They had the markings of magic ones. Anyways, I knew, despite your incredibly long grudge, that you would be there for me.”

“You could have told me flat out and I would have come to your aid. I am not always to be ordered around like some rag doll, you know.” He smiles, and I can see, even in the reflection of my vanity, the twinkle in his eye. Another thing his father had beaten out of him. Not with a stick or his hands, but with words, his father had beaten out everything that made up my old friend. I missed him, the old Landon, but I also knew he was too far gone for me to bother hoping for his return.

“Cory, I know you are loyal to me as a subject, but as a fiance there is still some lacking. Understandably so, of course. These past three months have been hard on both of us, I know. Our friendship has gotten lost somewhere in there and I was hoping, if you were willing, that while I wait out the nobles downstairs, we could… discuss.” I don’t even have to look in the reflection to know he is nervous. His voice proves everything that I can’t see.

“Well, this is my room, so unless you planned on leaving, I don’t think I have a choice.” I say, turning around in my chair to face him. We had talked about this before. Many times actually. Whenever one of us got drunk it usually came up. One night it even went as far as him getting angry enough with me to do it again. Since then my anger had only grown. His father had noticed, but didn’t seem to care as much as one might think. Either way, my rage had been three months coming, and if I knew anything it is that this conversation wouldn’t change much.

“Cory, you must know by now that I am sorry, for that night, for the other night, and for everything in between. The pressure is hard on both of us, yes, but I let the pressure of a wedding, of a coronation, I let it all get the best of me.”

“Yes you did.” He gives me a puzzling look, as if he expected me to just forgive three months of hell over that half-assed introduction. “Oh please, don’t let me stop you. Go on.”

“Fuck, Cory you make this too damn hard. I’m mad at you too okay? I’m mad at you for abandoning me immediately after the public ceremony. That’s why those girls came up to me. You know who else came up to me? My father. He said if I didn’t make this look believable, if I didn’t make the people happy through our union, that he would declare me illegitimate, and pick the next ruler. I needed you then. I had no idea where you were and I couldn’t find that one boy, the one you had been riding with. I assumed you had gone of with him. I was paranoid and stressed because of my father’s threats and so I drank. I drank and drank until those girls didn’t look like a bad idea. One last night of true freedom. After that I was yours. When you came back I wanted to prove to you that I wasn’t tied down to you. I wasn’t responsible for your feelings, but I am, and always will be, as your best friend. So I’m sorry that I let my anger and stress and paranoia get in the way.” He takes a deep breath and seems to sink further into the bed.

Some of that was news to me. Not the drinking, or the girls, both of those I saw clearly. It was the conversation with his father that made me even contemplate forgiving him. His father was a cold calculating man. He hadn’t always been that way, but after the death of his wife, it seemed as if everything was a tipping point for the aging man’s temper. I had been caught in the rage before. I knew what it felt like to be scrutinized from head to toe by his beady eyes and alcohol-ridden, breathless hisses. What I did not know, was how it felt like to have that be your own father. It was true, Landon was under intense pressure that night and the week after. I could forgive him for that, but the three months after that would take much longer to forgive.

“Landon, I can’t possibly know how hard that was for you, and I’m sorry he would threaten that, but that doesn’t forgive the hurt, tears, and heartbreak you have caused. While we were never romantic with each other, I was going to pledge myself to you, and you alone, because you were my best friend, and I owed you that respect and courtesy. It hurt me when you didn’t show me an ounce of that in return. Your infidelity, while nothing in the eyes of the law, broke my heart that night. Then for you to do it again… It is going to take a lot more than a mean talk from your father to make me forgive that.”

“I understand that, so let me show you. Tomorrow morning will you come with me to the farmers market in town? Just us. No Delia, no press. Just us. Well and a few guards, but they will keep their distance if I order them. Or they could stay close if you would like. I just want to do something we used to do, back when it was easy and natural for us to be friends. Back before I ruined it. Please, Cory. If you are going to give me a chance to prove myself, at least let it start tomorrow.”

“As long as you will let me go diving afterwards. Delia will try to object, but I need to dive, Lan. It’s my entire world and she is trying to take it away from me.”

“You called me Lan…” He says with a smile. I turn away from him to hide my blush, not noticing I had used my old pet name for him.

“Diving, or no more chances.”

“Fine, yes, diving. You know the power my smile has on Delia. Maybe let me give you a little peck on the cheek and then she will have no choice but to say yes. Also, I will be in the falconry after our morning tomorrow, my leading lads and ladies would like fresh fish. If you pick that up for them, I am sure they would be eternally grateful, as would I.” He says, finally getting up from my bed and crossing the room to stand behind me at my chair. From my turned position, I look up at him, oddly feeling more comfortable beside him, even though my brain says I shouldn’t. If I let him in too fast, my hopes of truly trusting him will be gone for good, and it will be old habits and old ways with no relenting and no respect for me. This may be his one chance, but it was mine too. I would not rest until we were on an equal playing field again.

“Of course. Don’t send any guards with me either. I prefer to do my diving without the fear of being watched.” He smiles, and leans down to kiss my forehead.

“Done.” Then he walks out of my rooms, sending Delia scrambling in.

“My prince! My lady! They need you immediately in the council room. A craft has landed in a northern province and they found a girl. They found you Cory.”

Final Steps: An Aoa Story

She liked to be able to see everything around her. That’s why she insisted on living above her little grove, but everyone assumed it was to keep herself hidden from her neighbors. Her horse, Baskerville, grazed calmly, outside her enclosed front porch. Everything was silent and calm, and I knew she knew I was here. My steps had been quiet to match the setting around me, but I knew that wouldn’t work. It never did with Polly. My supervisor was all too in tune with her surroundings, the surroundings she had created and nourished her entire life.

“Camina? Can I help you dear?” She asks loudly, stepping out onto her balcony. She is braiding her hair, her brown dress tied at the waist with a green scarf. Her red hair made her appear to have Arja influence, but she was about as Eto as it got. She was a lifegiver, and a caregiver, but her appearance could deceive her. Polly placed her hand on some ivy curling up her balcony and grows a flower to put in her hair.

“I just need to talk with you. I was going to wait until work tonight, but I heard this issue was time sensitive. You’re the only person I know to go to.” She smirks and nods down to me. I push the thick layer of plants aside and climb up the spiral staircase to her balcony. The farther I go up the more it smells like green tea and biscuits. Polly wasn’t a superb baker, but she had gotten really good at two things: tea and biscuits. So that was all she ever had. It was all she ever needed, most of her food came from testing our projects in the greenhouse labs anyways. All of those fresh fruits and vegetables all of the time, I can’t imagine a true Eto would want anything more.

“So my dear, what is it that I can help you with? It has been a while since I have been able to help anyone outside of a greenhouse.” I nod as she sits down in one of her lawn chairs, looking over her land. After a minute she motions for me to do the same, and I don’t question her, I just sit, my mind stirring and my heart pounding.

“Have you seen the news? About the voyage?” She nods. “Should I submit an application? I’ve been so undecided over it, but I feel like this is the only way I can truly help Aoa. I’m tired of feeling useless, but at the same time I don’t know if this is how we should go about solving the issues at stake-”

“My pupil, pause and take a breath. No matter what you decide, you are the next generation and whether you like it or not, you will decide the future of Aoa. Now, this mission could potentially end in death, while we are not as ignorant as them, the Earthlings did teach us this. So you tell me, are you willing to sacrifice your life?”

“If it means a better Aoa, then absolutely.” I say, wringing my hands together in my lap. Polly takes a sip of tea, and then looks me in the eye.

“Camina, I know you. You would do well in that program, very well, and you would be able to make a life for yourself. A life that you would be proud of. I’m not sure you can achieve that here with your certain convictions. That being said, wherever you go, and whatever you do, you can make a difference. Your convictions, strong and stubborn. A lot of people feel the same as you do about these humans, but not as many would act with the truth and promise that you do. Submit it.” She says, never breaking her eye contact with me.

“Thank you Polly. Thank you. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be yet, but I need to find out, and I can’t find out if I am being suffocated by humans.” Polly chuckles.

“Strong independent truth. That is you, Camina. Now, go submit that application, and don’t be late for work tonight, you’re marshing.” Polly instructs, remaining in her chair as I hustle down the stairs, knowing there is only limited time before the deadline beats me. Seb would be so proud. My mother would be proud. Aoa would be proud of me in the end. I know it. I can feel it.

My envelope crinkles in my pockets as I walk out of Polly’s garden home. I was going to apply. I was going to save Aoa. My heart was racing. I knew I had to make it into the program before I got my hopes up, but somehow I had a feeling my dreams rested beyond Aoa. They rested wherever the voyage would take me.

A Hidden Agenda: An Aoa Story

 

The rich surrounded the oceanside cafe, sipping from their champagne glasses with ease and elegance, but he was still absent from the table. I had even picked the farthest, most discrete one. Yet, I was alone.  12:30. That’s what he told me. Yet, here I was, alone for lunch.

My manilla folder sat restlessly in my lap, waiting – itching – to be opened and devoured. The contents of this folder could change lives, and he was still absent. At this point it was more than a lack of priorities, it was a lack of common sense. The world, and other worlds, were at stake and he was blowing me off – for what? Other suits? Other corporate government monkeys?

Bullshit. The real world, right now, was more important than his “career.” What was in these folder changes everything. It is everything. If he was truly as smart as his business card claimed, he would be here right now. I know he would.

I take out my phone and dial his number, hitting the call button harder than I should as I bring the device to my ear. It only takes two rings for me to hear his voice. “Sandra! It’s so good to hear from you!”

“You filthy son of a bitch. Where are you? My project needs confirmation today! The fate of this dying world is literally sitting in a cafe and where are-”

“Slow down, missy. I’m here.” He said, plopping down at the chair in front of me, his hair a sloppy, but charming mess, and his tailored suit windblown with elegance. Please. I straighten my blazer as my glare deepens. “Now, let me hear about your little project, doctor.”

“Elias, we have found life. Habitability. Safety. There is a moon two galaxies away, but we can get there. It’s a moon that supports life, teeming, intelligent life. In order to save the planet from their mess, the infidels in my prison must go there. 25 teens, those are my high priority. Teen murderers, arsonists, and enemies of the law. Form a team and I will send them there. My husband will-”

“Look your plan sounds good, and I will fully endorse it, but how long has it been since Bob worked in aerospace engineering?”

“We have the craft built. Despite being paralyzed, my husband stays busier than you think. We can get it in the air. We can get it to Delta-9. Just help us, and our prisons will be clean, our Earth will be safe. Trust me.”

“I do. I truly do. Let me come by your airfield tomorrow and take a look at the craft. This could be groundbreaking, you know. Both for you and me. Careers made. Retire immediately. Money in our pockets. It is astounding how far you have come from being a prison warden with a disabled husband. Now you are a true American.” I stifle an eye roll at his offensive words and do my best to agree. He would be funding and promoting my project after all, putting it in the right hands and all. Getting it off the ground, so to speak.

“Wonderful. Can I consider you a partner then?” I extend my hand and my old friend scoffs, as if appalled I would actually want to shake hands during a business deal. “C’mon Elias. I’m the only one that would lose here. Just shake and secure prison reform. Do you know how many votes that would guarantee you and your cronies?” Eli smirks, running a hand through his hair before nodding and placing his hand in mine and shaking.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t call my well crafted piece of political machinery, “cronies”. That is highly offensive you know. They may be manipulated, but they are people just the same. Now, I have to run. Go home to your cripple and tell him the good news.” Elias Dubois slides a crisp fifty dollar bill my way before standing up and walking out of the cafe.

I shove the bill in my wallet, guilty for taking a handout from such a cruel man. Any normal situation and I would not have taken it. This was abnormal. This was a victory. A victory for me, for him, and for the world.

As I packed up my folder, I felt unstoppable. If only Bob could see me now, actually see me and be proud. This was his idea after all, I only took the credit. I was his wife once, but ever since his post-paralysis paranoia set in I had become his secretary. Separate rooms. Separate offices. Separate lives. Until now. The Delta-9 initiative had brought us together. I am more than thankful for that. This planet, however innocent it may be, brought my husband back just in time for us to destroy it.

He didn’t care what happened to the planet, and neither did Elias. The men were always similar in their self-driven nature. While part of me cared, the other part was thankful to have Bob back the way I knew him before: a gifted, young astronaut dreaming of the world and universe as a place of perfection. Then the incident. It changed everything.

Now he was back, if only for a moment, and I would be right by his side. Just like old times. It was like he had never left at all. That’s the way I wanted it. Just like it was before. Even though after this project gets completed, the world would never be the same.