“Yo, sorry for disappearing like that,” Jacquir’s voice unmistakably came from the entrance, to my rear left at this point, with a suddenness that caused me nearly to jump in place. Everyone present, with the one typical exception, turned towards the new arrival with some measure of surprise.
“Where the hell’ve you been?” Jerome, concern now fully evident, asked as he rushed over towards the other. “I couldn’t find you anywhere, man.”
“Just been wandering around a bit; had a lot on my mind,” the other replied, trying to soothe any worry. A few commands to avoid scaring people like that, most strongly from the elder sister, were met with friendly reassurance, during which time Lily’s gaze intermittently met mine with strong deliberation, her usual indication of wanting to speak of something urgently. She made no moves towards leaving yet, though, so I would wait for such to follow.
She was not the only one paying attention to me at the moment, though. Jacquir seemed to be sneaking glances in my direction on occasion, nothing overt but certainly more than I had received before or was at all used to. He was, by my recollection, the one that Lily held a dislike for, on account of being a lecher or something. It was uncomfortable to think about whether that was the cause of this sudden interest, even though it made little sense. I did not know him well enough to determine anything, one way or another.
Elva, meanwhile, was ready to continue. “I was just going to begin messaging the other survivor enclaves, try to set up a full meeting.”
“Should I start on that?” Nikki finally spoke, readying her bookmark. The captain’s confirmation forced its place within the book she had been fixated on this whole time.
I asked with as much subtlety as I could muster whether all should be in attendance for these proceedings, looking to perhaps create an opportunity for whatever Lily needed, and while the messaging was not in need of input, there was apparently another topic, much more immediately impactful, which the captain brought up.
“We need to start looking at getting ready to pack up again.”
“We’re moving locations? Why?” asked Jacquir, stepping forward to join the rest of us.
“Sustainability,” Lucretia answered. “This was only ever meant to be temporary. Do you have something specific in mind, Elva?”
“Well, it seems like Hateli itself isn’t a good option at this point,” she mused. “Like you said, sustainability. We need to set up a new system. The bureaucracy isn’t here, Belenon isn’t here anymore, and we need food. A few people living in a relatively big city while unnecessarily far away from food production and with barely anyone around to work said food production sounds stupid as shit to me.”
“In other words, one of the empty rural communities near Hateli would be better,” I concluded, for the first time contributing meaningfully to this conversation. “The crops are still there, close at hand. It would not be long before they needed to be harvested.”
“Exactly. Just hope we have some people with a modicum of farming expertise so we can get our act together for it. Also, their houses should still have alchemical heating and lighting, so we wouldn’t need to scavenge much to start with,” the captain pointed out.
“Here’s to hopin’ the pastures didn’t all get emptied while they’ve been left unattended.”
“We should start preparing people for it immediately,” Lucretia asserted. “Elva, you can concentrate on organizing the meeting if you want, and just leave this to me.” She seemed more eager than I thought was normal for her, but what did I know.
“Yeah, I probably should take you up on that. Kinda pulled Miss Straley here from her book and then got off topic.”
“I resent that,” the woman in question muttered loudly, though with a good humor to her tone.
The two of them sat together at that point, working through initial messages and getting ready to reply. The rest of us were promptly dismissed, with the vice captain taking authority of the situation and instructing everyone else to get the word out and help people with initial preparations. She stressed that it was not to be overly urgent, however. Lily had given me another look by now, so as the group dispersed, she and I fortuitously left in similar directions, availing ourselves of a nearby stockpile tent once we had made sure it was unoccupied.
“Something seems wrong with Jacquir,” she claimed as the two of us positioned ourselves being a stack of crates. Her expression was one of perfect consternation.
“Wrong? More specifically?”
“Well, I- I don’t know more specifically. He just feels off somehow, in a way I can’t even pin down.”
“This must be an unusual type of feeling,” I reasoned, “for it to be so noteworthy to you. He is not hiding anything, right? Or anything else suspicious?”
“It doesn’t feel like it. That’s why this is so weird.” Her hand moved to cover her mouth as she spoke, with the rest of her adopting a nervously worried posture.
“Is this because he kept looking at me? Maybe it made you jealous,” I teased a bit, hoping to direct her away from the entirely serious topic and onto something comedic.
“Pfff, yeah right,” she scoffed, giving my shoulder a little shove. “He couldn’t land you in a million years. Your ass is mine anyways, so he knows I’d clock him for trying. I actually kinda wanna clock him just as a baseline.” We both laughed at that, to which I was rather happy at successfully making her less stressed.
It was probably a poor idea to linger much further in that tent, both of us agreed with a hint of melancholy. She murmured something about getting the word to her father first, hopefully a sign she might be feeling well enough to be near him again, while I had little idea of anywhere in particular to start. Lily’s departure brought as much aimlessness as I imagined, so I decided to just wander in a different direction, simply looking for whoever seemed to not be in a sudden preparatory hurry.
The standard action was… instructing them to spread the word themselves as well, right. A quick self-reminder of this preceded the first tidings I gave, and it was easy enough from there. Underlying the mundane surface thoughts – move there, study them, see if they know, help if needed with something – was the neutral recognition of my increasing comfort at these duties. It was easy. It was good distraction. A couple families had asked me to come back around once I was finished, wanting some help with particularly heavy objects or things of that nature.
The atmosphere throughout camp was changing at a noticeable pace, an air of distress with only the mildest urgency suffusing every interaction. Again according to instruction, I had been making sure to impress upon them that things were not meant to be happening immediately, but to prepare regardless. Was this task even worth all the attention I was giving it? Like I intentionally filled all capacity for thought with nothing but the immediate assignment, or at least as much capacity as possible. I would like to think I was normally more contemplative.
I forced myself to slow down a bit at that point, put more deliberation into my thoughts rather than go on autopilot like I had been. A little deep breathing, good, fine, easy enough. Still could not tell what was making me feel anything nervous or weird right now, but slow was still good. At this point, with the work of the town watch and everyone spreading the word themselves, it was a reasonable assumption to make that I no longer needed to worry about spreading the word. It seemed like everyone was on the same page now.
Guess it was time to make good on my promised aid, then. Momentary recollection brought to mind where it was I was meant to go, and thereafter I went. Slowly. It was helpful to pay attention to the air, the coolness as it passed into my lungs or over my skin, the grass beneath my bare feet. Crows perched somewhere nearby, briefly casting a hungry eye over the area before bringing themselves to wherever seemed promising in their minds.
Late afternoon lazily progressed itself into the early evening as I walked, a fact which was well noted in my attempts at mindful perception. As I came to the first people who had requested help, I had to renew my mental deliberation in opposition to an instinctual desire to retreat away from it. Having to beat my brain into submission to keep myself functional, and tiring myself out in the process, was causing increasing exasperation for me.
The first sight of them, by appearance a father and his young teenage son, gave me a strange sense of sadness which replaced my previous irritation. It led me to wonder morbidly if their family had always been like this, or if they had been forced to grieve recently. And if it was something I could have prevented. I knew thinking like that was irrational and would just make me feel worse, but it seemed unavoidable for me. Luckily I made myself interrupt their current bonding moment or whatever so as to ask them what to lift and where.
The younger half of this pair had noticed my state as I removed the object in question from their tent and secured it onto their vehicle in advance. He even showed a decent bit of tact, waiting till his father was not present before asking if I was unwell. That was appreciable, in both ways. He seemed to accept my deflection, the assurance of simply being distracted at the moment by something unrelated. In reality, though, this was nothing to simply brush over.
Once everything had been settled with this family and they had given gracious thanks, I pulled myself away. I might have considered skimping out on my other promise, if the sound of my name being called had not completely diverted my attention. Jerome and Jacquir were both here, approaching me casually and with a tone of general friendliness. At least, that is what it had to be, above anything else.
“Hey, Senna, you just finish up here?” the former asked.
“Yeah. They had something kinda heavy they wanted to load up early,” I explained as the two of them planted themselves within normal conversation distance.
“Well it’s good you’re free now, ‘cuz the captain said she wanted to see you.”
“Alright then,” I complied, preferring to hurry this along. “Where is she?”
“I think back at her office. We were gonna-”
“Actually, there was one other family who needed help with something. Could you take care of it?”
Again, cordial agreement. The way I was looked at was hard to ignore, but I sure did my best. It was almost creepier how he looked like he was putting in active effort to hide it, too. Apparently he had been doing a better job of it before recently. Maybe there was something bothering him about me, about anything, and that was what Lily picked up on? Either way, the two of them set off as soon as I pointed out where and who it was they were heading for.
The walk to Elva’s office was more stressful than I liked, on account of my worries over what this could be that specifically concerned me. Even if it was just that she needed me for a unique job, the idea made me uneasy, because I did not seem to be on top of things today. Well, not as much as I could be, that is. At least I was here, doing things normally. Being around Lily more, letting her actually get close to me again, that would probably help.
I decided it was better to think of it as possibly giving me something new to focus on, repeating that to myself while stepping over the threshold and into Elva’s presence. She was presently busy with packing up some of the nonessentials of her office space back into their former containers, and continued with the activity even while acknowledging my having entered. My offer to help her with it was turned down politely, as it was just about finished. In the meantime, she asked me to seat myself in one of the chairs that had not been disassembled yet.
“Thanks for coming over here,” she started off at the tail end of sealing one of the boxes shut and setting it down.
“It is no trouble,” I assured her with a sickeningly friendly tone. If she noticed anything off about it, though, she gave no indication. By now she had joined me in sitting, adopting a posture more serious than the atmosphere otherwise seemed to be.
“You’re not in here for a lecture or an immediate assignment, just so you know. There are just a few things on my mind.”
“Well,” a chuckle more jovial than uncomfortable, “the word ‘immediate’ was intentional, because there are a couple things I need you for soon.” She paused, during which I nodded and let her continue. “We can’t talk to anyone from the Yleinic faction through transmission, so I was hoping you could relay to them the meeting place and time once we’ve got it fully worked out. So, by tomorrow probably?”
“How would they know how to get there?” I questioned, though I probably knew the answer, and thinking about the timing of it scared me to the point of my chest tightening up already.
“It’d be easiest if you led them there,” came the expected answer. “Is that a problem?”
“Normally, it would not be, but- well, I…” I ended up stalling out rather than replying fully, the anxiety over actually physically saying what it was bubbling over now.
“Senna, what’s going on?” she asked, voice showing what I wanted to believe was genuine concern. She really seemed to not be thinking about my situation at all, though. Even if it was genuine concern, I had no guarantees of that sticking around if I reminded her about that thing I had to deal with. All of us, actually, unless they… decided to have less of me around. I did not want to think about it, or any of it. She needed an answer. The way she moved, about to stand up and perhaps move towards me, was what finally pushed me to give her that answer.
“I- I am worried that something will happen,” I blurted out, giving her pause from her rising motion, “you know, while I am elsewhere. Unprepared.”
“Something will happen? You’re not making s-” she faltered, interrupting herself. A knot formed in my stomach.
“The… the twelve day minimum is not very far away. There is very wide variance, though,” I said as reassuringly as I could muster, almost more to myself than to her. My voice sounded small even to my own ears, forcibly steadied as it was.
She seemed to sit herself firmly back down at that point, something less indicative of deliberation and more indicative of being deeply taken aback. Or maybe that was too dramatic. It seemed like she really had not been thinking about this aspect of the situation at all. The situation. Was it more accurately mine? I was the only freak around here… No, I impacted everyone; just calling it my situation seemed egotistical to me. That was the absolute last thing someone in my position should be.
“Twelve day minimum,” her voice repeated, almost sighing. “The, uh, ‘curse’ thing. Right. There’s no way to tell more accurately?”
“Seemed random to me, and I have no intuition on it,” I answered, head tilting down slightly so as to better suit my eyes, which had already met the floor.
“Well, the way I’ve been seeing it lately, this is more like a force of nature than an enemy. One extra person unfortunately dies at certain time intervals. Only differences are that it’s been pretty traumatizing for you, from what I’ve seen, and more importantly, we can actually do something about this force of nature.”
“Do something? Like… premeditate?”
“You make it sound so dirty,” she muttered, turning away from me and scratching at her head. “You yourself have talked about what you’ve tried to do to get away from this. Avoid people, kill animals; didn’t work. Only thing left is to make sure it’s not a random act anymore, you know?” Her voice had softened a bit by the end of that, sparking just enough of something resembling courage in me to take my eyes off the ground. Not enough to look right at her, though.
“Lily said as much, too,” I agreed, simple to acknowledge. Less simple was next. “What does it mean, though? For me, for us, for whoever has to be on the receiving end of it? Are we going to play a game of who is least valuable, or who is most irritating? Are you going to- to make me kill people while I am still in control just so the ‘right person’ is always targeted? Who are we to even-”
“I don’t fucking know! I don’t know, okay? There’s no good answer to give you, nothing any of us can do to make this situation stop being so fucked up. I can’t… I can’t hold the consequences against you, Senna, but you have to just accept what you need to do.” Again, in spite of the much harsher and louder tone she began with, her voice had softened by the end, taking a nigh-pleading character to it in my mind.
This time, she decided to stand all the way up, and I had nothing to say in protest as she walked around the barren desk to place a hand on my shoulder. Out of some sense of appropriateness, I joined her in standing. Even while being so close to her and with little way of avoiding eye contact, I found a way to do just that.
“I know I need to accept it,” I finally replied, “I was not trying to convince anyone otherwise.”
“I see. I’m sorry that you need to keep shouldering this.”
“Thanks,” my voice trembled unintentionally, something I fixed before continuing. “Um, you said you needed a couple things, did you not?”
“Mm, yeah, almost forgot,” she said as she withdrew her hand, turning to sit back down where she used to be. Again mirroring her, I sat down right as she did.
“Sorry for derailing.”
“No, it’s fine,” I was assured. “That needed to be addressed. Anyways, the other stuff I needed to talk about, right. Uhhh, well, kinda miscellaneous at this point, really. I wanted to let you know that if you can personally attend the meeting along with me, it’d be really important.”
My brow furrowed somewhat. “Why do I need to be there?”
“You have important testimony. What you told me about this Altera and her claims, that’s something that needs to be taken into consideration by everyone there. It’s more credible to have you yourself share it, but if you just don’t think you can, or if things turn out that way, then it’s not the end of the world.” That all made sense, in spite of my reticence towards promising more of myself in the immediate future here.
“Well, if nothing goes wrong, I suppose I can do that,” I gave in. With the second of her items discussed, I made the premature decision to stand up as if to leave.
“Really quick, before you go,” she interrupted my departure, “I should warn you beforehand. You might have already guessed the Ophentum were going to attend the meeting in some way, in which case you’d be right. All I can say is to not provoke anything, okay?”
“I will, uh, try not to. When should I leave?”
“I’ll have the answer to that by tomorrow, hopefully. Not sure about when everyone can arrive, yet,” was the explanation. A beat. “Well, I guess that’s all. Feel free to see me if you need help, by the way. I mean it.”
“Thanks. Speaking of help, do you have your office covered, or?” I offered, somewhat habitually. Was already getting used to helping other people with this.
“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry about it,” she gently refused, picking up her prior activities again as I made yet another move to finally leave the tent. Just as I was crossing the threshold, her voice picked up again to say, “Hey. You wear the uniform well.”
The way she said it – no, more importantly, the sentiment itself – seemed very sweet to me. That said, I stalled out a bit in trying to think of something appropriate to return, and ended up just giving her a nicely said ‘thank you’ before walking out. Really hoped she had not taken that in a bad way. She probably would not, since it would be easier to assume I just thought she was paying a more mundane compliment than she was. Then again, maybe it was exactly that mundane, and I was overthinking it again.
There was likely little left to actually do at the moment, and the hour was growing later. We had not made any plans to meet anywhere special, so I could only assume Lily would be found back where we were sleeping, or if not there then maybe with Krishov. It had been a while now, but I remember that he was the first to even approach this sick little idea that I had been forced to accept as the only thing we had. Maybe he would have a valuable perspective.
Not like I was going to head over to his place first, even thinking about that. Preferably we would talk in the morning or something, catch him while he was unoccupied. In the meantime, I was more interested in touching base with my partner again. With how much I had been stewing in my own turbulent and self-violent feelings, I was certainly neglecting her, and she deserved better. She needed better. She had practically spelled out just as much.
My feet adopted a faster pace than usual as I walked toward my first reasonable destination, a piece of minor venting for my agitated nerves. This foray through the camp had resulted in no stops to be asked for assistance, whether due to everyone becoming engrossed in preparing their evening meals or because everyone’s issues had been sorted out well enough for tonight. Either way, I was not interrupted until very close to Lily’s and my tent.
Pleasantly enough, it was Lily herself giving me pause from continuing onwards. Our paths had intersected as we both headed for the same destination, her arms busy carrying some foodstuffs I could only assume she had just gotten from the stockpiler. It seemed like more than was needed for one person. If she was planning the likely event – inviting her father over – then that would put a bit of a damper on what I had hoped to do. And it had to be that, after all; she surely would not randomly forget that I neither need to eat nor enjoy doing so.
“Any plans?” cordially asked I, unwilling to leave my assumption as merely that. The first part of her response was a sheepish smile, as if having been caught in something and playing with it.
“Dad’s no good making his own food,” came the second part of her response. “I know it’s sometimes uncomfortable with you two, though. Is it okay?”
“I am doing fine right now, so, yeah. I kinda wanted to ask him something anyways, except the original plan was to wait till tomorrow. This is just convenient.”
“He said he’ll come over once he’s got his medical texts packed up again,” she informed me as she got the fire started again. By the cookware and ingredients, it looked like she was going for a mostly meat-based stew or something, along with some of the abundant native vegetables and herbs from this area.
“He really has an important job,” I sighed, taking a seat beside her on the soft grass and watching as she worked. It was fun to look at even without any conception of hunger.
“Well, I think so too, but how do you mean?”
“Just how his minor medical training has been useful,” I said, ending up understating it probably. Specialists in fields like that would be crucial, moving forward. “Has he mentioned intentions of training anyone?”
“He has, yeah,” she replied, tapping her big stirring spoon thing so as to get more liquid off it before setting it down. “Felt kinda… I dunno, not hesitant, but just not sure of himself? Since being a doctor wasn’t his main field.”
The sounds of someone approaching preceded the actual arrival, though I made no mention of it to Lily as she talked. It was obviously going to be Krishov, after all, and I think she could sense it anyways? Thinking that made me realize I actually was not sure if she could locate people directly using her emotion sense. Another little thing on the list that I should remember to ask her about at some point. Maybe she would like seeing me be curious about her.
“Hey girls,” his familiar voice greeted us from that direction as he stepped closer. “Sounds like I’m the topic, huh?”
“Senna was just asking if you were gonna train anyone, Dad,” Lily answered as her father sat down at something close to a right angle from us. Seemed like he did not want to be completely opposite, while still giving us space. Considerate?
“Oh yeah, I have to at some point,” he said, leaning back to stretch out his muscles a bit.
“Cannot have merely one person for each job, after all,” I added.
“Mhm. Just lucky we have such a wealth of recorded knowledge to work with.”
“The food’s gonna be a lil while yet,” Lily informed us as she gave it another stir. “Senna, you can go ahead with whatever you wanted to ask.” Krishov turned then towards me, looking partially expectant and partially wary.
“Yeah, um, I was going to save this for tomorrow, but now is convenient enough,” I started by explaining. “I guess the first thing I should do is apologize.”
“Apologize? For what? Not like I’m upset you’re talking to me over dinner,” he said with a bit of a laugh.
“Not that. It was, well, it was a while ago.” My posture shifted with a small measure of discomfort. Even without knowing exactly what it was about, Lily gave me a reassuring touch, hidden as it was by the angle.
“I’m not sure I follow you,” he expressed his confusion. Was beating around the bush too much here.
“I have… recently had to acknowledge what I must do.” Fuck, that was vague too. Stop being vague. “Before the invasion even happened, you were the first to suggest it, and I got upset at you for even bringing it up, even though it was rational. I am sorry.” That was about as specific as I could force myself to be.
“Oh… oh,” he nodded slowly, eyes wandering off into the distance for a moment. “Well, uh, it’s fine, Senna. Really. I didn’t hold it against you or anything. Was pretty obvious where you were coming from.”
“Thanks,” I meekly offered.
“Was that all? I mean call me paranoid, but Lily said something about you asking me something, and that was just an apology, not a question.” That was kinda pedantic, though certainly nothing approaching paranoia. Astute, if anything.
“I- I need help,” I painfully admitted, casting my eyes elsewhere out of habit. “I know I have to do something about this. Everyone tells me that. I just cannot-… I need a plan that I can just follow, and I keep stifling myself from making one.”
As I spoke, Lily had gotten up entirely, having apparently determined that whatever she was making was done. The bowls were a few steps away, easy enough to retrieve, and in a handful of seconds, she had served both herself and her father their portions. The pot, meanwhile, was taken off the fire so as to not burn up what remained within, after which Lily took her place at my side again.
“Do you find it easier to act when someone else makes the plans?” Krishov asked me just before his first mouthful. “Hm, this isn’t bad.”
“What exultant praise,” came Lily’s jokingly sarcastic remark.
“Sometimes, I guess. When things are hard like this.” Lily leaned into me a bit, hopefully imperceptibly, as she too started digging in. Might have even been unintentional, come to think of it.
“I don’t know how much anyone can help, to be honest,” he replied with a regretful tone, though my poor gut reaction made it seem hollow to my ears. I really did not like where that sounded like it was going.
“Why not?” I asked, tone becoming almost insistent with sudden desperation. “I just-”
“Well, come on, you can’t expect people to premeditate this stuff with you,” he interrupted louder than was necessary. He seemed to notice that too, and quieted down before going on. “I’m just not comfortable with this and I shouldn’t have to justify that.”
“It is not about that,” I practically hissed at him. The way he said these things, rational or no, was really good at pissing me off. Like I am some unreasonable bitch for not shouldering this silently like a good little freak like I have my entire fucking life. What the hell was his problem?
“Okay, then what?”
“Dad, please,” came Lily’s interjection now, “you’re being kinda antagonistic.”
“I’m not trying to antagonize anyone, but how can I be expected to deal with this kind of request?” he growled in frustration, hands moving a bit to emphasize the emotion at the peril of his meal.
“HOW CAN I?!” I stood suddenly, caught up in the rapidly rising anger and worse things which anger masks. “I have had to be a prisoner in my own body and watch my own hands kill people for longer than you have been alive, Krishov. And I have had to deal with it alone. No friends. No family. No, wait, that is exactly how you think it should be, huh? Monsters like me are not allowed any fucking support groups, huh?!”
“Come on, he didn’t mean it like that-” Lily tried to intercede. I was in no mood to listen to her defending him right now. Krishov himself seemed totally silent at this point.
“No, fuck that,” I interrupted her in heated dismissal, “he never liked me from the beginning, and I am sure he feels justified in it. So fine. Everyone wants me to take care of my own damn problem? I will.”
The scene bled away in front of my eyes as I left it, rushing away from a situation that had become more painful to deal with than the alternative.