Posted on May 5th, 2022 by Hannah Ziredac
Kalox III (‘Albion’)
April 4, 2401
They materialized on a downtown corner, from which they bore vantage over two long rows of shops, eateries, and quaint miscellany. Brookings-Dover was a more resortish cousin to Albion City, sixty kilometers up the coast. If Albion wasn’t squarely a Federation colony, free of money’s trappings, this would be where all the rich people lived. This shoreline downtown region spanned for a handful of blocks eastward until rising into lush hills dotted with marvelous estates. At every turn, a lap of luxury.
Lacuna took a long sniff of the salty air. ‘I never get tired of that smell,’ he said. He struck off south down the street at a casual pace, beckoning Hannah and Destiny to follow. ‘When was the last time you were on a real beach, Salladay?’
‘When I was fourteen. Family reunion on the Whitsundays.’
‘Islands off the coast of Australia.’
‘Oh, right. I don’t know Earth too well.’
Hannah didn’t believe that for a second. Lacuna’s hyper-sober dad-energy was rank with prevarication. There was too much blissful ignorance in these little things he said. If Leirone hadn’t sworn by this guy, Hannah would have prepared herself for swift betrayal at any moment. In the meantime she installed a filter on every word and iota of his general presentation. Never shit a shitter, and other such poker-table idioms marqueed through her consciousness.
‘How bout you, Ziredac? Last time you were on a real beach?’
‘Until a few years ago, I tried to make it a yearly habit,’ Lacuna said. ‘Whatever was closest, you know? Even Risa, cliché as that is. One time, about fifteen years ago, we did a job out in a system called, uh… I forget. There was this tropical moon out there. Nearly all the landmasses were archipelagos. Completely unpopulated; no natives, no colonies, just the wild. You just picked an island, popped a tent, fished, ate the sweetest fruit you could imagine, and…’ He sighed. ‘Pure heaven.’
Destiny said, ‘Why’d you stop going?’ with a flatness that, to Hannah, betrayed that Destiny’s Bullshit-O-Meter was also pinging like crazy.
Lacuna said, ‘Huh?’
‘You said, “until a few years ago,” you went to real beaches.’
‘Oh, that’s just because of my work that I do now.’
‘I actually can’t say.’
Hannah rolled her eyes.
Destiny widened hers. ‘You’re not… you’re not still—’
Lacuna spun, walked backwards, grinned a grin he probably thought was way more handsome than it was. ‘Nah. Company NDA.’ He finger-gunned at Destiny, which made Hannah want to file a copyright claim, and added, ‘You oughta know a little something about that, huh, Salladay?’
‘I ought to, huh?’
‘Oh yeah. What, you think Apollo was impermeable to people like my people?’
‘Do you think the Section was impermeable to people like mine?’
Hannah said, ‘Put your dicks away. Christ; how old are you guys, again?’
With another finger-gun aimed at Hannah, Lacuna said, ‘Older than I look, and way older than I feel.’
That was the first full sentence out of his mouth that Hannah believed without question. ‘Where the fuck are we going, by the way?’ she said.
Lacuna turned back around and kept walking. ‘Beach access.’
‘Because he’s on the beach.’
Destiny asked, ‘How do you know that?’
‘We traced him to a coastal town, it’s warm, it’s sunny, I’ve known him for a decade; he’s on the beach.’ Sensing their wariness he added,
‘Sometimes you can put your gadgets away and use your old-fashioned intuition.’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Hannah said.
‘Don’t call me that.’
Two blocks down they came to a cobblestone path, posted with a driftwood sign reading, ‘Beach→’ in bright white painted letters. To remind every passerby that they were indeed on the coast, the sign was adorned with seashells and a rudimentary drawing of a happy cartoon fish.
The three travelers took this path to the sun-white sands, where crystal-blue water lapped at the land with gentle, whooshing waves. A couple hundred humanoid shapes lounged, walked, or played along the broad crescent of coast they could see from here. Young people tossed a frisbee not too far off to the right; a pair of joggers made their way south; children built sandcastles and squealed as the waves brought their little kingdoms to ruin.
Lacuna kicked his shoes off and left them near the path back up to the street. Destiny when-in-Romed, but carried her shoes with her. Hannah kept her shoes on, but pulled her jacket off now that she was out of the shade of the buildings. The sun was perfect. And the air here was, indeed, a lovely mélange of saltwater, seaweed, coastal flora, and something else she couldn’t place—perhaps the resident aroma of Albion’s geology.
Fuck if she knew. All she knew was how pleasant it was: how it cradled each sense in the perfect bed.
Fifty-or-so meters down the beach she saw a shock of dyed hair: a different shade of green, but green nonetheless. It actually wowed Hannah how long the delusion lasted, even as her rational brain told her that this person was not Zoë. Hannah must have stared at this person for fifteen, twenty seconds before her brain allowed her to acknowledge the truth. She had always heard about these quasi-hallucinations, but took them as exaggeration. And she herself had experienced it before when…when someone passed away a few years ago. Thought she saw her in that Ferengi marketplace. But that lasted, maybe, a full second. This…
Hannah could feel Zoë beside her in that moment, walking barefoot in the sand, their fingers interlocked in that funky way because of their different hand sizes; she was laughing; they’d come here on her shore leave; they were happy; none of their fights had ever happened; she was here.
Tears welled with a startling suddenness. Though Destiny and Lacuna were several paces ahead, Hannah turned away from them to hide her crumbling. She broke off to the right, listing toward a huge sun-bleached log. She climbed its smoothened, amputated root structure. Once on top she found a place where many happy people had once sat, carving their names and the names of their loved ones into the old wood. Nihal + Darak; Feri + Sophia; Ivy + Cannon; Beren + Luthien (Cute.); Hakeem + Utsak. So many others.
Hannah drew her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and stared out at the ocean as she willed her tears to subside.
It was not instantaneous.
Destiny wished she could do something. She and Lacuna noticed Hannah’s veering almost at once, and forged a silent agreement to let her go—but Destiny didn’t want to. The resentful suppositions against her were too true: she had spent a lot of time in isolation, her only non-holographic interactions mired in the tarry bog of business. She rested for many years on the remarkably untrue conclusion that holographic socialization was as good as the real thing—but when you custom-tailor your human condition to suit your utmost comfort, your tools go dull. Her empathy pulled her in Hannah’s direction, but what would she do? If she offered a hand or an embrace and Hannah barked her away, she couldn’t restart the program and try a different approach.
She didn’t want to do nothing, but she saw no other choice.
‘So what’s your story, Salladay?’
‘Thought you already knew.’
‘I know the bullet points of a dossier, but not, like, who you are.’
‘Do you need to?’
‘I would like to.’
‘To what end?’
‘To feel human? I don’t know. Is human interaction not in your wheelhouse?’
‘Can we do this another time, and just focus on finding your friend?’
They walked for another twenty, thirty minutes until the beach-goers started to thin. There were a few people moving along the southern reach of the shoreline, but most of them were joggers in pairs, or people out with their dogs. Lacuna walked with his hands in his pockets at lackadaisical pace, often peering out at the sea and smiling into its light, warm breeze.
‘Are you even looking?’ Destiny said.
‘Oh, I’m looking.’
Destiny furrowed her brow. ‘You must have some special secret-agent scanning technique, because it looks like you’re taking a leisurely stroll.’
‘¿Por que no los dos?’
‘Because a madman is going to rain unimaginable hell on the galaxy if we don’t do something soon.’
Turning to walk backwards again, Lacuna offered an overconfident smirk. ‘Trust me, Salladay. I’ve got this all under control. We’ll find him.’
You will, will you?
If Lacuna wasn’t surprised by this comm intrusion, he deserved an Oscar. He looked up and down the beach, scanned inland, kept twirling like a dope in the sand. ‘Jazon?’
The only name on this end of the comm that you need concern yourself with is ‘TR-116’, because that’s what’s trained on your skull. Who the fuck are you?
‘What do you mean, “Who the fuck are you?” It’s me. It’s Lacuna.’
Bullshit. His sorry ass wouldn’t come after me without advance warning. And he wouldn’t bring the head of Apollo with him.
Destiny froze, dropped her shoes, stared at Lacuna for a sign that he would stop their impending assassination.
‘Things change, Jazon,’ Lacuna said. ‘Take your enhanced paranoia, for example.’
Did I mention the TR-116? Watch your mouth. There’s a difference between paranoia and caution. And if you knew me like you claim, you know how cautious I am. You have ten seconds to beam the fuck out of here. One…
‘Jazon, come on, it’s me. Fucking scan me.’
‘It’s the Emissary, man. He’s back.’
‘He’s doing… I can’t explain it very well, but he’s brewing something big. Something that could bring the Fall back.’
Sarreon’s got resources, but he’s not a fucking Q. The Fall are dead. How the fuck could he bring em back?
‘Put your rifle down, meet with us, and we’ll explain it.’
The voice sighed. Give me a second.
Destiny remembered to breathe. ‘Why didn’t you send him an advance warning?’
Lacuna looked at her like she was an idiot. ‘Just look up a subspace channel that isn’t confirmed to be his, say something like, “Hey, former Section 31 buddy, let’s meet up at this location on this date”? Like you said, we’re in a bit of a rush.’
Without so much as the shimmer of a transporter, a man materialized behind Lacuna. In a blur he put a hold on Lacuna’s arms, swept his feet out from under him, and put him face-down in the sand. Using his free hand and his teeth, the man prepped a small device with a hypo attachment, and snapped it into the side of Lacuna’s neck.
‘Hey!’ Lacuna said. ‘The fuck are you doin, man?’
The result on the device came back satisfactorily. The man released Lacuna and stood up. He was about Lacuna’s [perceived] age but in far better shape, and with a face more haunted by a brutal life. With not an ounce of levity he said, ‘Your words were, “Fucking scan me,” so I fucking scanned you. What’s with this careless approach, Luke? Retirement making you soft?’
Lacuna brushed the sand off his clothes and out of his hair, then staggered to his feet. ‘Sue me for thinking you wouldn’t blow your old friend’s head off. Anyway,’ and with introductory hand-waves he said, ‘Jazon, Destiny Salladay. Destiny Salladay, this is Vector.’
Vector gave a subtle nod. ‘Didn’t think any of you Apollo creeps came out of your castle. Definitely didn’t think you would.’
‘That’s what happens when your castle burns, I guess.’
His eyes darted from Destiny to Lacuna, then back to Destiny. ‘Sarreon?’
Vector crossed his arms. ‘Fill me in.’
Hannah was deep in a cycle of vicious thought. The first time she met Zoë, the first time she kissed Zoë, the first time she did anything with Zoë, the many times they did all of those things, the last time they did all of those things, and all the countless times they could have done all those things if Hannah wasn’t such an unforgivable piece of shit.
A bleak question grew in her mind: What am I going to do after this, if I survive?
The answers she received were not the kindest.
Again—god, for, like, the hundredth time today—she wanted a drink. Fuck, she hated this compulsion. It was like a wriggling parasite in her solar plexus that could only stop biting and clawing if fed some booze. The loss of mastery over herself made her feel less human.
She closed her eyes. Though bathed in placid sunshine warm ocean breezes, Hannah entered into a desolate, windblown winter of thought. It closed in, surrounded her; the cold of the whiteout bit at her eyes. Here all wisdom froze, leaving naught but a single, slow notion plodding over the blasted tundra—to peer into the black crevice.
The tiny voice came from below. Hannah looked down from her perch on the log and saw a small girl standing in the sand. Great, she thought. The ignorant sunniness of a child. Just what I need. The girl was six, maybe seven years old. Human. Scrawny but hearty. Big brown eyes, ear-length dark-blonde hair with bangs, couple missing teeth in that big smile. She wore a bright pink swimsuit with a unicorn on the front. It had three little pockets along the tummy, each with white-and-purple frills.
‘Hi,’ Hannah said. No matter how dark her mood, she couldn’t bring herself to be an asshole to a kid.
This, of course, was not to say that she knew how to converse with kids. ‘Just sitting.’
‘Why ya been cryin?’
Sweet Jesus. ‘Oh, just… big-kid stuff.’
‘It’s gonna be okay.’
Hannah couldn’t help but half-smile at that. Did this kid even know what she was saying? ‘Thanks.’
‘Penny Macy. What’s your name?’
Okay, where’s Mom and Dad? ‘Is it?’
Shrugging, flashing that gapped smile, Penny said, ‘I dunno!’
‘You seem like a bit of a weirdo, Penny.’
‘You’re a weirdo, ya weirdo-head!’ She laughed. The laughter of kids that age was the laughter of a jolly drunk.
‘Do you always accost strangers like this, or am I special?’
Again with the shrug, again with the smile, again with the, ‘I dunno!’ Then, ‘Ya wanna play?’
‘No offense, but not really.’
Penny half-toppled like an abandoned marionette. ‘Aww, poop.’
‘It’s okay.’ Penny’s eyes lit up as she remembered something more important than anything in the known universe. ‘Oh! My mom wanted me to give you this!’
Penny reached into one of the tummy pockets of her swimsuit and pulled out a flat, circular, gray rock with five holes of various sizes punctured through it. She got on her tiptoes and held the rock as high as she could toward Hannah. Hannah reached down and took it, and turned it over in her hands. The holes, though remarkably circular, looked formed by nature—or by humans many hundreds of years ago.
‘Your mom wanted you to give this to me?’
‘Yeah. She saw you sittin over here, then gave me that rock, then said to come over and give you it. She called it… Uh… She called it, uh…’ Penny growled in frustration, then spun on her heels. ‘Mom! What’d you call it?’
A little ways down the beach Hannah saw a woman in sunglasses look up from a book and shout back, ‘Perspective!’
Penny turned back to Hannah. ‘Perpspeptive. She said to look through it at stuff.’
Hannah held the rock up and gave a silent thank-you nod to the mother. Then she held the rock up to her face and looked at Penny through the centermost hole. ‘Thanks, Penny.’
‘You’re welcome! See ya later, alligator! In a while, crocodile! Adios, cinnamon toast!’
The child sprinted off back toward her mom, kicking up as much sand as she could, flailing her arms, screeching with the pure enjoyment of being. Hannah stared at the rock for a long time, running her fingertips over the holes, testing out the perspectives on things near and far.
It wasn’t much longer before Destiny and Lacuna came back with the man called Vector in tow. Introductions were made, transporters were engaged, blah, blah, blah. As Destiny and the agents started working on the final team member’s location, Hannah retreated to her quarters. She replicated a simple pasta dish for dinner, put on some 2390s doom metal revival, had some distracting alone-time, went about her new routines.
The whole time she had the perspective rock in her pocket.
Such a hokey concept, but for some reason she couldn’t tear her thoughts away from it.
Like she was connected to it somehow.
Hannah also could not tear herself away from the perspective rock’s delivery method.
The concept of cosmic significance—or apophenia or synchronicity or whatever the fuck you want to call it—had been rolled into the dough of Hannah’s brain since early childhood. Though her conscious brain was able to process such thoughts as bullshit, the impulse was still there. Thanks, Mom.
Penny, the little girl, represented two things in Hannah’s mind: her own childhood, and the nebulous concept of her own parenthood.
The first item hit Hannah’s subconscious like an asteroid. At Penny’s age, Hannah had also been drawn to unicorns. Somewhere in a storage bin in an attic lay Sprinkles: an old stuffed unicorn with a bright pink mane and sparkling eyes. Little Hannah had also been on the wilder side. To hear Dad tell it, she was a bottomless well of hyperactivity, and it was a small miracle she slept at all. On top of that, she kept her hair short, just like Penny.
The second item was harder to pin down. Hannah’s biological clock had been smashed with a big cartoon hammer the second it went off. Procreation was absolutely off the table, but motherhood wasn’t anywhere within ten AUs of the table, or any table-like surface. And yet, the concept of family had always been grounding. Creating a home with a stable partner, having a pod of people of who all cared about each other so deeply and profoundly that the bonds could never break…
It didn’t take a psychology degree to figure out why that sounded nice.
Zoë never mentioned children when she talked about her other lifetimes. Maybe they never had any, maybe they did and Zoë just didn’t want to talk about it; Hannah didn’t know; Hannah didn’t want to know. But now she was caught in a riptide of thought, wondering if she and Zoë would have had kids if they’d stayed together.
Fuck, she thought. ‘Fuck,’ she said.