Hera of Lexington
Chapter 5 (read Chapter 1)
by Anta Baku
“You do look a lot like her,” the head of the farm was saying to Alistair as Hera settled into her chair in the control room with a hot beverage and about an hour of recent sleep. She’d managed a nap while the rest of the team was preparing Alistair for his mission. None of them had thought to wake her up after he left. She’d have a talk with Shale about that later. Fortunately she was too anxious about finding Sage to sleep soundly, not to mention too worried about whether Alistair would do a better job on this mission than his last.
It wasn’t Sage who the head of the farm thought Alistair looked like. They had agreed that he would ask questions under the cover of trying to find out about the last days of his cousin Nike. A cover that should be easy to maintain, since it was information Alistair actually wanted.
“Nike was my mother’s sister’s girl,” said Alistair. “That whole side of my family looks alike.”
“She never lived here,” said the man. Hera scrolled back in her feed to find his name: Bonney. “Not for more than a few days, at least.”
“But you knew her?”
“I suppose I did,” said Bonney. “Nike was one of our main sources of supplies, during the Occupation.”
“You suppose you did?” asked Alistair.
“I’m not sure anyone knew her very well,” said Bonney. “That wasn’t a very trusting time. And we’re not a very trusting people on this farm, most of the time. We try to get better. But everyone here has a past they don’t want to talk about.”
“I heard this was a rehabilitation farm,” said Alistair. “But I’m not sure how that works.”
“No prisons out here,” said Bonney. “Not until the Gavidarians came, anyway. They can afford prisons anywhere they want, I suppose. But humans don’t have the money for prisons, or permanent homes for the mentally ill or the developmentally disabled. Instead there’s the Farm.”
“That sounds dire.”
“There’s not a good way to explain it to outsiders,” Bonney said. “It seems like every possible description has been tainted by someone, somewhere. Here, it’s not punishment. It’s not forced labor. We’re just a place people can go when they need to have a future that isn’t necessarily connected with their past.”
That sounded promising. It was exactly the sort of place a former bishop could become someone else entirely.
“Does that include you?” asked Alistair.
“It especially includes me,” said Bonney. “I came here the same way anyone else does. Running away from something. The Farm gave me a chance to put it behind me, and I’ve stayed to pass that on to the next generation.”
“That’s a good story,” said Alistair, with a skeptical tone. Hera could see him poking for weaknesses, looking for something to criticize, trying to establish the need for approval.
“Well, everyone tells themselves stories,” said Bonney. “I’d like to think mine was more accurate than most. I could take you on a tour, and you could judge for yourself.”
“I’d like that,” said Alistair. “I haven’t been able to find many places Nike visited during the Occupation. It would be good just to see some of the things she saw, and you could tell me anything you remember about her.”
“Mostly it was business,” said Bonney. “She wasn’t very interested in the progress of the farm, and we don’t have much else to talk about. Even more so in those days. And of course she wasn’t going to tell us anything about what she did off-planet, in case it got to the Gavidarians. We were all pretty close-lipped then.”
“It seems you’ve kept in the habit,” said Alistair.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I know she was doing more here than just carrying supplies,” said Alistair. “She was sheltering a refugee, a bishop of the Church. That’s why she came out here. And I think you were helping her.”
Bonney took a moment to answer. “It sounds like you know more about your cousin than I do.”
“I don’t think so,” said Alistair. “I’ve been looking for information ever since I got the message telling me she had died out here. I know a lot of things. But I never saw her after we were teenagers, before the Occupation. I can say that my cousin Nike was an acolyte of the Octavian Knights, and that she helped the leader of the order flee to the outer planets. But I don’t know what that meant. I don’t know what it was like to be here. To be her. I don’t know who she was, how she felt, what drove her to make that her particular mission in the Occupation. And I don’t want to lose that.”
“I didn’t even know the Octavian Knights still existed,” said Bonney.
“I’m not sure anyone did,” said Alistair. “That information wasn’t easy to find. But can you see that it doesn’t matter? If I knew why she chose to be a Knight, what membership in the order meant to her, maybe then it would matter. But all of that seems to have died with her.”
“Maybe it didn’t,” said Bonney.
“I thought you didn’t know her that well,” said Alistair.
“I didn’t,” said Bonney. “But I’m not the only one here.”
Hera was impressed at how easily Alistair had steered the conversation toward Sage, while appearing otherwise. She had to admit he had a talent for this sort of mission, the kind based more on talking people into things and less on breaking into places.
The two men were walking through a grove of citrus trees, with artificial lights not very far above, so powerful that Hera had to turn down the brightness on her feed. She thought Bonney would be taking Alistair directly to Sage, or Zita if that was what the bishop wanted to be called now. But instead the administrator stopped, keeping Alistair in what must have been uncomfortable brightness.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through here, in my time,” he said. “Like I said before, everyone tells themselves stories. And when you work with people who need to change theirs, you see a lot of them. A lot of people who are trying on different ideas about themselves. When it comes to identity, the difference between a lie and something someone desperately wishes to be true isn’t always easy to spot.”
“Are you trying to tell me something about Nike?” asked Alistair.
“Oh, not about Nike at all,” said Bonney. “One of the few people I’m sure never lied to me, in fact. Though largely because she never told me much of anything about herself. That part of what I said before was true.”
“What is it that you’re getting at, then?” said Alistair.
“I think you really do care about your cousin,” said Bonney. “There’s something true inside that, even though that’s not why you’re really here. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, I think,” said Alistair. Hera had hit the panic button just before, and Fred and Jean crowded into the feed, but none of them had any idea what to do.
“You’re really here to find the bishop, though, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Alistair. “I don’t even think they’re still alive. Or I’d be looking for them and not for you.”
“You know she’s still alive,” said Bonney. “You’re a good liar, but not good enough, not here.” Hera reflected that at least it seemed they had been right about Zita, even if the cover story was falling apart.
“I’m not lying to you,” said Alistair. “I really want to know about my cousin. If the bishop is alive, I want to meet them. Her? How is a bishop a her?”
“She’s not a bishop anymore,” said Bonney. “And you want more from her than understanding Nike.”
“I swear I don’t,” said Alistair. “I just want to know my cousin, to properly grieve my cousin. Why are you doing this?” In desperation he was putting everything into this part of the performance, and for a moment Hera actually thought he might manage to weasel out of it.
“Maybe because I’m used to confronting people when they need to hear the truth,” said Bonney. “It’s part of my job. But I suppose you’re not a client here. Not yet, anyway.”
“Not ever,” said Alistair. “I don’t have anything to run from.”
“You have everything to run from,” said Bonney. “I can tell.”
“So what?” said Alistair. “Are you going to lock me up here? Try to turn me into someone else?”
“Of course not,” said Bonney. “I told you this isn’t a prison. And it’s not illegal to lie to me like that. Just kind of sad.”
“There’s nothing I can say to make you believe I’m telling the truth?”
“Not at all.”
“Then I guess I will have to leave,” said Alistair. Fred shot Hera a message suggesting they start thinking of other ways to get to Zita.
“Oh, don’t leave just yet,” said Bonney, starting back down the line of citrus trees. “Come with me.”
“Why?” said Alistair.
“I’ll take you to the former bishop,” said Bonney. “She wants to see you.”
Alistair followed him silently for a few minutes. When they had left the bright lights of the citrus grove he asked one final question. “What was the point of all this, then?”
“You needed to know,” said Bonney. “Know that I knew, that I could see you. And know that, when you really need to, you can make use of that.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alistair.
“That’s all right,” said Bonney. “You will.”
At that point Kelly woke up, and Hera was relieved that Alistair still seemed to have some walking to do before he got to Sage. All she could see on the feed was a field of courgettes, and it was going to take all three humans left in the ship to handle a traumatized enemy priest. Especially because the team hadn’t come to an agreement on how to handle them.
Hera was the last one into Fred’s quarters, where Kelly had been housed again. It would have created a sense of coming full circle, but this Kelly was hardly recognizable as the composed and defiant priest who had occupied the room briefly on the way to Ticonderoga. They weren’t even sitting up, but curled into a ball on Fred’s bunk muttering to themself. Hera couldn’t make out the words because Jean and Fred were already arguing.
Fred was holding an ampule. “We’ve got to drug them again. We can’t have them distracting us from the mission.”
Jean was standing between him and Kelly, clearly not ready to let him past. “The drugs are already making them less coherent,” they said. “Another dose could make that worse.”
“If the situation were reversed, do you think Kelly would be worried about making us worse?”
“Do you want Kelly to be your standard for humane treatment?”
“Hold on,” said Hera. “We’ve got a few minutes at least before Alistair gets to Sage, and Shale will warn us when that happens. Both of you take a few deep breaths and let’s think through the decision.” And let me hear what Kelly is saying, she didn’t say aloud.
“We can’t let an enemy loose in the ship during a mission,” said Fred.
“They’re a Gavidarian torture victim now,” said Jean. “We owe them medical care, not to knock them out for our convenience.”
“Deep. Breaths.” said Hera. “Ten of them, both of you, right now, or get out and let me take care of it.” Fred grumbled, but both of them complied.
Hera bent over Kelly to listen to the priest’s muttered words.
“The stone person sent me down,” said Kelly.
“Malachite,” said Hera.
“I don’t know their name,” said Kelly. “They sent me down. Did they mean to kill everyone?”
“I think he did,” said Hera. “But we stopped him.”
“No, no,” said Kelly. “Water everywhere. All the humans gone. Everyone’s dead.”
“No one’s dead,” said Hera. “I stopped him from controlling the Hoozu.”
“Hoozu?” said Kelly. “No, water. A wall of water. I grabbed something, all the other humans were washed away. All the houses, all the gardens, gone.”
“The water is where it’s supposed to be,” said Hera. “Malachite didn’t do anything to it.” She was pretty sure that was true, but perhaps they would have to doublecheck. In any case there hadn’t been any flood.
“Who’s Malachite?” said Kelly.
“The Gavidarian,” said Hera. “The green man.”
“They weren’t green,” said Kelly. “Or a man. Just a regular Gavidarian. They sent me down to the camp.”
“What camp?” said Hera.
“At the mine,” said Kelly. “Before the flood.” Whatever they were talking about, it wasn’t recent events. Maybe the drugs, or the torture, had caused some sort of flashback. Or a hallucination.
“That’s ten,” said Fred, crankily. “Can I give them more drugs now?”
“They’re not coherent,” said Hera. “I don’t think more drugs are a good idea. But I don’t know what we’ll do with them if they’re awake. Jean, what was your plan?”
“I’m just at nine.” said Jean. “He breathes faster than me.”
“Tell me anyway,” said Hera.
“Kelly needs to readjust to reality,” said Jean. “They need time, conscious time, to understand where they are again. And then they need to tell us what Malachite did to them. The longer they go without saying it, the easier it will be to repress, and the greater the long-term damage could be.”
“This isn’t our friend, Jean,” said Fred. “They wanted to strand us on Ticonderoga. Remember that?”
“I haven’t forgotten it,” said Jean. “But it doesn’t change my obligation to assist a victim of torture.”
“Even if they’re a total asshole?” said Fred.
“I swear, in a minute you’re going to tell me they deserved it,” said Jean.
“OK, stop,” said Hera. “Deep breaths again. When you’re done, Jean, give me a plan, not a fight.”
They both shut up, but Fred got a glazed look in his eyes as he plugged back into the feed. Hera could only imagine the memes he was sending to Shale about the whole thing. Well, this wasn’t Shale’s responsibility, and maybe the AI would at least calm Fred down a little. She was confident he had too much sense to be sending them to Alistair at this moment.
Kelly was still talking about water. “I’m going to drown,” they said. “Milo help me. No, No. Milo take me to your home. Take all your children. There’s so much water. They say you help those most who perish in water. But is this water enough? There’s so much metal. Will the metal keep us from salvation?”
“Kelly,” said Hera. “You’re hallucinating. You’re not drowning, you’re in our ship, and you’re not going to die.”
“Spinning, spinning,” said Kelly. “It takes me under, it turns me upside down. It gets in my mouth and it tastes wrong, so much metal, so many people.”
“There’s no water,” said Hera. “I need you to come back to reality.”
“I keep breathing,” said Kelly. “Why do I keep breathing? No one around me is breathing. They’ve all gone to Milo. Why can’t I go to Milo? Surely I will before the end of this. Why can’t it end now? I go under again, but back up in time to breathe. There’s water in my mouth, utter foulness of water, but I can always spit it out again. What is the purpose of this? Milo, take me, soon, please, Milo.”
“You’re not going to die,” said Hera.
“I am,” said Kelly. “I must. The flood will go on for hours before it stops. There will be villages. We all must go to Milo in the end. There is no chance to survive.”
“There’s no flood here,” said Hera. but she clearly wasn’t getting through. Whatever Kelly was experiencing was too strong to talk them out of. Was Fred right, and more drugs was the only way to calm the priest? Hera’s impulse was with Jean, that bringing Kelly back to reality was necessary and kind. But as long as Kelly was nonresponsive she didn’t know how to accomplish that.
“Jean, plan,” she said.
“We could give them some other stimulus,” said Jean. “This room isn’t enough, talking to them isn’t enough, but maybe if there was something more engaging to grab their attention they would latch on to it.”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Hera.
“I’m not sure,” said Jean. “I suppose we could plug them into the feed.”
“Because a field of zucchini is more engaging than I am?” said Hera.
“I’m sure Alistair will be back to pursuing the mission soon,” said Jean.
“And you want to tell Kelly everything he learns about Sage?” said Fred.
“Look at them,” said Jean. “Can you think of them as an enemy?”
“You want them to recover,” said Fred. “And when they do they’ll be right back to trying to get ahead of us.”
“And how many years will that be?” said Jean. “We can maybe get them back to perceiving reality, but the only place they’ll be going afterward is a lot of therapy.”
“Whatever Malachite did to convince Kelly to follow his orders, it can’t have been mild,” said Hera. “Even if for only a few minutes, breaking down Kelly’s resistance to following orders from a Gavidarian? They’re not going to recover quickly.”
“So we have a traumatized and erratic enemy? I was going to say instead of an implacable one full of guile, but I don’t think those things are going to go away either. Is that what you want?”
Hera had to admit he had a point. “Is Kelly going to go to therapy? However much they may need it, I can’t see them deciding it’s more important than following us.”
“That’s true,” said Jean. “But I think I’m more willing to force them to go to therapy than I am to risk drugging them again, and still having this same problem later. Or a bigger problem if the drugs take them further down.”
“So they stay our prisoner,” said Hera. “And when we have an opportunity we have them committed?”
“There are still a lot of therapy hospitals on Lexington,” said Jean. “They have experience in this sort of thing.”
“Are we even going back to Lexington?” said Fred.
“Hold on,” said Hera. “Whatever we do right now, we have the problem of what to do with Kelly either way. Do we agree that sending them to therapy without consent is a reasonable choice?” Both of them nodded. “Then we can worry about how to make it practical later. Fred, get them plugged into the feed. Let’s see if that works.”
“Incoming only?” he said.
Hera thought for a moment. “I want to be able to hear them. Outgoing to us only, not to Alistair. You don’t have to be in the loop if you don’t want to.”
“Oh, I’m going to,” said Fred. “Someone needs to watch out for them, not just look after them.”
“I really am doing both,” said Hera. “And I think Jean is, too. But I appreciate your help.”
She wasn’t sure if that really defused the situation, but it was all she was going to be able to do right now. They really did need to get back to Alistair.
He was still walking through summer squash. The people of Eddy must really like the stuff, though Hera had never had much use for it. Kelly came into the feed, still babbling about a flood. They seemed to be more resigned to survival now, still carried inescapably by water, but less violently, less in danger of immediate drowning.
“The trees are coming, the trees are coming,” they said.
“Can you describe the trees?” said Shale. One advantage of having Kelly in the feed was that the AI could take over interacting with them. Unlike the others, Shale had plenty of attention to spare. Hera still kept an ear on their conversation, because she wasn’t sure Shale had plenty of patience.
“Born in water, with roots in air,” said Kelly. “The roots are so wide. Under water now. Too much water, all this water. I can’t see the roots, can’t avoid the roots, bounce, bounce, so sore. But I keep breathing. Why do I keep breathing? Moving slower now, I think I’m going to survive, Milo why did you make me survive?” Hera had seen trees like that before. They were all over Lexington, anywhere there was permanent or even seasonal flooding. Kelly must be back on the home planet, within their mind.
On the feed Alistair and Bonney had moved into another field, of marrows now. So far the plan of moving Kelly into the feed for more stimulation wasn’t working very well.
“There’s something coming ahead,” said the priest. “A tower, two towers, three towers? A bridge? The water runs through it but it doesn’t connect to anything. Just standing in the river.”
“What does it look like?” asked Shale.
“Tall,” said Kelly. “Wet. Full of holes on the outside. Like it used to be covered in gold and jewels, but someone came and took them all away.”
Three towers in the middle of a river, covered in gold and jewels? That was more distinctive, and Hera began to get a sinking feeling she knew just where Kelly was, in their mind. “Can you get closer to them?” she asked.
“Can’t stop,” said Kelly. “I’m going to be swept through. Maybe they’re the gates to Milo.”
“I don’t think so,” said Hera. “I think you’re in Springwood.”
“Springwood? I was in Springwood once,” said Kelly.
“You’re going through the Sawgrass Temple,” said Hera.
“How do you know?”
“I was there once, many years ago. When it was still covered in gold and jewels. Before the Gavidarians.”
“So what happens when I get swept through?” said Kelly.
“Nothing,” said Hera. “Well, there are some fountains on the other side. And a garden.” Though if Kelly was experiencing what Hera thought they might be, the gardens would be completely flooded.
“I’m going through,” said Kelly. “Oh, Milo, it’s going down and down and down.”
The gardens at Sawgrass Temple had been terraced, Hera remembered. The fountains flowing downhill with the river, the main structure of the temple holding the water back, controlling it, directing it into one of the artistic marvels of Lexingtonian history, as all the river water briefly gained the purpose of the temple’s fountains, a feast for the eyes and ears while also spreading water throughout the cultivated terraces of the grounds.
Only one time in recent history had the river overburdened the controlling dams and drowned the meticulously-designed terrace gardens. A mining disaster upstream, a tailings dam rupture that flooded, and contaminated, the river for hundreds of miles. One of the most dramatic signs of the destruction wrought by Gavidarian strip mining, and Gavidarian disdain for the safety of Lexington.
There had been no survivors. At least, that was what Hera had believed. But Kelly seemed to be flashing back to an event there ought to have been no one alive who was able to flash back to. Hera tried to bring her tired mind around to finding a way to question the priest about her experience, but it wouldn’t make the turn. If there was a way to get real information out of Kelly, to learn more about what had happened at Sawgrass, Hera couldn’t see it just then.
And at that moment Alistair and Bonney made it to Sage.
Whatever her name was, she was sitting at a table near a small pond surrounded by fruit trees. By this point Hera was more surprised to find they were growing something other than gourds than she was to discover the object of their multiplanetary search.
There were only two chairs, and Bonney faded away into the farm after introducing Alistair. He took a seat while Zita did the sort of double-take Hera had seen hundreds of women do with Alistair before. That she remembered doing herself, once. At least there would be that advantage. She forced her mind off of Kelly, and Springwood, and to the task at hand.
“I was expecting your woman friend,” said Zita.
“She’s exhausted,” said Alistair. “But I think you arranged that for her. You sent her to the Hoozu on purpose.”
“Of course I did,” said Zita. “I had to know if you were honorable people. If your friend was someone I could trust. If she could show compassion to the Hoozu… well.”
“Then you could admit who you really are.”
“I am who you see,” said Zita. “An old woman.” She blinked and hesitated a moment. “Well, maybe not all that old. But old enough to sell vegetables, and not much else.”
“You’ve done much more, before,” said Alistair.
“Perhaps,” said Zita.
“I think you owe us some answers,” he said. “Your little test almost got Hera killed.”
“I didn’t know about the Gavidarian,” said Zita. “The Hoozu wouldn’t have harmed her, any more than they harmed me when I was living there.”
“You admit that you’re the refugee bishop we’re looking for, then?”
“I don’t think there are any others around here,” said Zita. “Yes. I called myself Sage, once upon a time. In the arrogance of youth. I regret that choice, here, now, in a simpler life with a simpler name to go with it. Zita fits better. I’ve learned that much, at least.”
“She keeps looking in his eyes,” said Kelly in the feed. “Why does she keep looking in his eyes?”
“People do that with Alistair,” said Fred. “Women do that.”
“Oh, cause he’s dreamy?” said Kelly. Which was about the last thing Hera had ever expected to hear from the young priest.
“Zita seems to think so,” she said. “Maybe he can use that.”
Alistair had a similar idea, giving the former bishop a big smile. “Now you know you can trust us, so why not tell us how to go about finding Milo’s Relics?”
Hera could see Zita fighting her instincts on that one. Alistair’s move had been too direct, too necessary to resist. Zita’s attraction might have gotten him halfway to that goal, but trying to get the whole distance at once was too much. She was able to overcome her immediate desire and think about her goals.
“I don’t know that I can trust you,” she said. “Your friend showed compassion for the Hoozu. So maybe I could trust her. I wanted to talk to her.”
“Later, perhaps,” said Alistair. “When she’s rested.” That “perhaps” wasn’t in Alistair’s usual vocabulary. He was mirroring Zita’s phrasing back at her, trying to reinforce the attraction. “Maybe I should go.” Hera almost laughed out loud at that. She had to appreciate how good he was at this manipulation. He even made a move to get up from the chair before Zita inevitably stopped him. Everyone but the bishop knew it was coming.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said.
“Who would?” said Kelly.
“Stay and talk to me,” said Sage. “Maybe I can learn to trust you.”
“All right,” said Alistair, as if he was reluctant. “I’ll stay if you’ll tell me something about yourself, something that isn’t a secret.”
Zita thought quietly for a moment. Fred dumped a heroic meme into the feed. Hera had to admit he was right. Alistair was playing this extremely well. Everything they could learn about Zita would be worthwhile, even if she thought it was unimportant.
“Something that isn’t a secret?” said Zita. “That would have to be from a long time ago. My whole life has been secrets. They weigh.”
“How about something from your early life?” said Alistair. “I don’t need to know your secrets. I just want to know who you are. Who is Sage, or Zita, or….”
“Hm. I don’t think my name before I became a priest is important anymore,” said Zita. “That young woman is long gone. She meant something to me, even after I wasn’t her, in much the same way that Sage is my past now. But the Gavidarians killed that. Killed everyone who remembered her. Almost everyone. Changed the others. None of that matters now.”
“Tell me her story, anyway,” said Alistair, making sure to emphasize the eye contact when he said it, and leaning in. “How did she become Sage?”
“She fell in love once,” said Zita. “She was young. People do that, when they’re young.”
“People do that at any age,” said Alistair.
“Hm. Perhaps. Sage never did, though. Zita never has. It was just the one time, and once was enough. At least….”
“Tell me everything,” said Alistair intently.
“I want to tell him everything,” said Kelly. Hera filed that information away for later use. Maybe. If there was ever a time Kelly was vulnerable but not too vulnerable. Interrogating them in their current state would be criminal.
Zita wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. But Alistair was using every move he knew to convince her to like him. And Alistair knew more moves than anyone else Hera had ever met. Combined with his natural magnetism it made him a great operator. It might have made him a great lover, too, if his likability didn’t disappear as a direct result of getting to know him.
He just waited her out. “All right,” she said, finally.
“You were in love,” he said.
“I was. Yes, I was.”
He was a criminal. She hadn’t known that, at first. And once she did know it, at first she didn’t care. Young love was like that, at least in those days. When they only had the common class of criminal, and not collaborators, traitors, and profiteers. His business might have been wrong, but he wasn’t in danger, and he wasn’t killing anybody else, either. And love, perhaps, is too good at accepting other people’s flaws.
But love didn’t make her any better at lying, however much she wanted it to. Or convinced herself she wanted it to. Maybe it made her better at lying, after all. But it didn’t make her any better at lying to other people.
The worst part wasn’t even the lying itself, it was the worry that her lack of skill, of subtlety, would inevitably betray him. Every lie was a risk that she took for love, and a bigger risk that his love took for her. He wasn’t worried. So she had to worry for both of them.
She stayed in, pushed her friends and family away, turned away from an almost-finished education and the beginnings of a career. He made plenty of money, after all. Her brother worried she was being abused. How could she explain that she just couldn’t face normal conversation?
For a while it worked. She made new friends on the global feed, friends who would never ask what her boyfriend did for a living. That was a question for barbecues, not for chatrooms. She managed to reduce the need for lies to once or twice a week, and then once or twice a month.
Then he got promoted. And his organization had ideas of the roles the partners of their leaders should play. Suddenly she had peers who knew everything, men and women she could talk to, if they were careful about where and when and who could overhear.
It would have opened her life back up if she hadn’t hated all of them.
That didn’t break the love, but in a way it broke the spell. She looked at the other partners and saw herself, or at least her future, and that was too much for her. But by then she knew too much to simply walk away.
They fought like they had never fought before. And in the end, when he might have won, when he was moments from winning, he saw the future it would bring him and surrendered instead. Because love made him better at lying to himself as well.
He turned himself in, expecting leniency, though he refused to testify. He pledged to turn his life around, to find honest work, so that his love could return to her family and the life of truth he had taken her from. But judges are not so romantic. He was told to go to jail or join the army, and when the army took him on, they deployed him to the outer solar system.
Of course he was not allowed to take his family.
The future Sage, the far-future Zita, broke, then. Could she go back to her family, alone, and explain it all? Could she live, safely, anywhere on a planet with the criminals she had betrayed? He was supposed to make it all work, by taking the blame with her family, by demonstrating his unwillingness to incriminate anyone beyond himself. But who knew what pressures could be placed on him in the army? What value system he would hold in a year, or five years, after indoctrination? The underworld couldn’t trust him, and if they couldn’t trust him, they couldn’t trust his wife either.
She needed a refuge, and on Lexington there was only one refuge of last resort.
“So you became a priest?” said Alistair.
“Not immediately, of course,” said Zita. “That wasn’t the direction my education had gone. I knew nothing, and had to start at the beginning. By the time I became a priest, well, I knew a very little bit more than nothing. Much less than I thought I did, in fact.”
“Is that why you chose to be named Sage?”
“I thought I was so jaded, then. I had been heartbroken in the underworld! Surely that was the sort of traumatic experience that inevitably confers wisdom. I knew everything there was to know about betrayal, and about love. All I could do was share that with my students.”
“What were your students like?” said Alistair.
“Oh, I didn’t have any students,” said Zita. “I thought they would come, eventually, on their own.”
“The Octavian Knights, then?”
“By the time they were my students I had cause to know better. I was assigned to the Order, but I didn’t teach them. I became a bishop not because I knew anything about religion, or about life, but because I was excellent at accounting. That was what I trained in before, you see.”
“But you were in charge of Milo’s Relics.”
“I was in charge of doing inventory,” said Zita. “I saved the Relics because I was in the right place at the wrong time. The very, very wrong time. Afterward I was in charge of the mission because no one else of any rank had escaped with us.”
“You managed to save the Relics,” said Alistair. “And keep them safe throughout the Occupation.”
“The Sage of that time would have cared a lot about what you thought of her,” said Zita. She looked away and then back, in a way that made Hera sure she cared a lot more about Alistair’s opinion than she wanted to admit.
He picked up on it, too. “You’re a hero of the Occupation. Or… you would be, if the Church got the Relics back. Why didn’t you return after the Gavidarian withdrawal?”
“No,” said Zita. “Not yet. Except, I suppose, the same reason I’m not answering. I don’t know who to trust.”
“How do you learn who to trust?” said Alistair.
“I think it’s time I started asking the questions,” said Zita.
She’d found a new reservoir of strength with that decision, and quickly took the lead in the conversation. Alistair told her, honestly, about finding the stick blender, tracing her to Ticonderoga, coming to the outer solar system to learn what they could from the memory of his cousin. He told her about Malachite, and then had to go back and explain about Kelly.
None of it seemed to make much difference to the former bishop, though Kelly mumbled over the recitation of their story from the team’s perspective. Half of what Hera could pick out was still unfiltered comments about Alistair’s attractiveness, though.
She wasn’t sure how much that was affecting Zita at this point. The former bishop had found a better handle on self-control, and Hera wasn’t sure if that was in spite of her attraction to Alistair or because she had managed to defeat it. Fred sent a worried meme into the feed, and Hera had to agree. If Zita had managed to find her emotional balance again, they were going to have a very hard time getting any information out of her.
But it didn’t seem like Zita was satisfied with the questions she was asking. She didn’t quibble with Alistair’s answers; she seemed to accept that he was telling her the truth. Which was even accurate, though Hera could see the big gaps he was leaving out. Maybe Zita didn’t need to know about Shale, or about Vexor Alexi, but Alistair also hadn’t mentioned the finding of either of Sage’s hermitage texts. Those could be a powerful card to play later, but it might also bother Zita that he wasn’t disclosing them now.
There was a certain amount of second-guessing that you just couldn’t do to someone during a mission, though. Alistair had made that decision in the moment, and it was his to make. They would just have to see where it led.
Meanwhile Zita was running out of practical, factual questions, and getting less confident in herself as she did. She pushed, tentatively, at Alistair’s feelings about the mission, But since he’d left out Shale’s existence, mostly what he had to talk about was his grief over his cousin Nike, and his anxieties over what it meant that Kelly had been following them, and what the consequences of the priest’s breakdown would be.
Kelly, surprisingly, didn’t have anything to say in the feed about that. Were they recovering some self-possession? Or at least some sense of when not to talk?
Maybe they’d stolen the self-possession from Zita, who was obviously losing hers as she failed to get whatever it was she wanted out of Alistair. The pauses between her questions were getting longer.
At last she asked “how do you feel about the story I told you?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Alistair.
“Would you have done what I did?” she said. “Or would you have stayed?”
“Are you asking if I approve?”
“No, I don’t… maybe? Not quite? I’m asking… well, I’m asking whether you think what I did… or what I didn’t do? Maybe I’m asking if what I didn’t do was something you could have done.”
“Could I have played along?”
“Could you have done it for real?”
“Oh, that’s… hm. I was going to say, yes, I could have played along. It’s my job to play along.”
“That’s why I have to ask so many questions.”
“And why I have to answer them,” said Alistair. “I know that you know that I know… well.” Hera noted the way he was adding pauses to mirror Zita’s for her own future reference. Zita was uncertain so he made himself seem uncertain to set her at ease.
“But do you know that I know that you know that she knows that you know?” said Kelly.
“He doesn’t,” said Fred. “You can only talk to us.” Hera didn’t think Kelly was being that literal, but it didn’t really matter.
“You’re a con man,” said Zita.
“By profession,” said Alistair. The former bishop just waited. “All right, and by habit,” he added. “But I’m not here to con you.”
“Of course you are,” said Zita.
“I think, maybe, that it would be better to get what I need from you with the truth.”
“You’re right about that,” said the former bishop. “I’m just not sure you actually believe it.”
“It’s a difficult problem,” said Alistair. “I can see it from your perspective.”
“It’s a more difficult problem from your perspective,” said Zita. “I can always tell you to go away.”
“So what is it that you want me to do?”
“Right now I want you to answer my last question,” she said. “Could you have joined the criminal underworld?”
“Before the Gavidarians? I was actually a pretty straightforward, law-abiding guy before the Gavidarians.”
“I’m more interested in how you feel about it now.”
“Oh, I suppose you would be. Well, I think I could do almost anything I had to, now.”
“But you wouldn’t have to. You would have a choice.”
“And you want to know if I would make the same choice you made.”
“I guess I do, yes.”
“Or you want to know if I’m so desperate for your approval that I’ll say so.”
“Not quite,” said Zita. “I know you’re desperate for my approval. I want to know how you’ll react.”
“And again you know that I know. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere.”
“It would help if you stopped avoiding the question.”
“All right,” said Alistair. “I think I would have done what you did, but for different reasons.”
“Oh, now we’re getting somewhere,” said Zita. “Say on.”
“I don’t hate lying, like you did,” said Alistair. “I learned how useful it can be from the Gavidarians. Milo says to value truth, but sometimes the more important truth is that our people need to be free.”
“I thought I was the theologian.”
“I just… I don’t want you to say, he’s a liar, therefore he must be wrong.”
“Religion is far more complicated than simple rules,” said Zita. “You know I’m judging you. But I’m not judging you because you can’t follow the simple version of Milo’s philosophy you were taught as a child.”
“I never went much farther than that.”
“Then listen to an old ex-bishop. Childish simplicity is meant for children. They tell you Milo wants you not to lie because they want you not to lie. And they’re not wrong. Lying, in a nine-year-old, is no good to anyone.
“But what Milo had to say means different things to adults. You see the beginning of it, with your idea of a higher truth fighting the Gavidarians. But it’s not really a higher truth, it’s just a different truth. What truth you choose to serve. That’s what I need to know, before I can tell you about the Relics.”
“Well… I think, if I were put in your situation, it’s not the lying itself that would bother me, but the permanence of it. The idea of it extending indefinitely into the future, with no endgame, no exit strategy. In terms of what truth I serve, I suppose it’s the truth that we can’t live without hope of better things ahead.”
“The future is a kind of truth?”
“That kept me going, through the Occupation. I could not resign myself to the idea that the Gavidarians would never be gone.”
“And that justified everything you did to fight them.”
“That’s… you know, that’s more philosophical than I’m comfortable with. It let me make choices to oppose them effectively. Were they justified? I can’t pretend I went two decades without ever making mistakes. I’m not happy with how everything went. No, I’m not happy with how anything went. But that was the Occupation. I’m not interested in… in keeping score about it.”
“You’re closer to Milo than you give yourself credit for,” said Zita.
“I have no idea how to take that,” said Alistair. “I’ve done what I did. If someone wants to judge me for it, I’m sure they can find me. I don’t want the job myself. I don’t see the point.”
“Is that satisfaction?”
“Still too much. It’s just knowing that the past is the past and unchangeable.”
“So we’re coming back to the future being your truth.”
“I suppose so. That feels… well, it doesn’t feel wrong like the other things you just said.”
“And the future you want now is finding the Relics?”
“That’s what I’m doing now, anyway. Cleaning up some of the loose ends of the Occupation. I’m not an environmental remediator, or a geochemist, or someone who can figure out how to put millions of dislocated humans into situations where they can be happy again. This seems like a thing I can do.”
“But it’s not your passion?”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find something that’s as meaningful as getting rid of the Gavidarians. I kind of got addicted to that, you know? Not that I want them back. But dealing with a disaster… doing it isn’t easy, but the direction is easy. You always know where you want to go, even if it’s a lot of work to get there.”
“Are you sure you’re not philosophical?”
“Maybe you’re bringing it out in me,” said Alistair. Zita seemed distinctly pleased by that idea. “But now… you say the future is my truth, but if that’s true I feel farther from truth now than I ever have in my life. I’m just doing what’s in front of me, and I have no idea where it’s taking me, or what I might do when it’s done.”
Jean spoke up in the feed for the first time in a while. “I wish he would talk like this to us sometimes. He’d be more likable.”
“I think he’s likable!” said Kelly.
Fred sent an exasperated meme that read “We know.”
Hera wasn’t sure about this. Was Alistair sharing his true feelings, or just leading Zita along? Well, if even she couldn’t tell, the chances that Zita would figure it out were slim.
“There are many possibilities for your future,” said Zita.
“That’s the problem,” he replied.
“So you need someone to help you narrow the scope,” she said. “A guide, or perhaps even a companion.”
“I wouldn’t know where to find that,” said Alistair.
“It would need to be someone who you could be completely honest with,” said Zita. “Someone who accepted and saw the value in your truth.”
“I don’t know anyone like that,” said Alistair. And while Hera would have liked to disagree, she had to admit there was justification in that.
“Is she hitting on him now?” said Fred, so startled that for the moment he was out of memes.
“That’s what happens when we send Alistair into things,” said Jean.
“That’s why we send Alistair into things,” said Hera.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think it would happen with someone smart,” said Fred.
“She’s been alone for a long time,” said Hera.
“Yeah, but Alistair? Really?”
“You know nothing about what women want,” said Kelly contemptuously.
“Zita’s having as hard a time at being a woman as Alistair is at not having Gavidarians to fight,” said Jean.
The former bishop had moved her hand onto Alistair’s. “Show me who you are,” she said.
He pulled back. That was not his usual method, on a mission that went like this. He was supposed to lean in, to encourage, to gain everything he could from a woman’s attachment. But with Zita, he pulled back, took his hand away from hers. Disappointed the target. Did he see her as a threat? Did he have deeper plans? Was he still on-mission at all?
“Your future…” he said finally.
“What about my future?” she asked.
“Your future will never be free until the Relics are found,” he said. “If you don’t tell me how to find them, someone else will seek you out. And others, afterward. The Church won’t leave you alone.”
“Is that your price, then?” said Zita.
“I’m not selling anything,” said Alistair. “And I don’t think what you think you’re buying is real.”
“Perhaps I’ve gone too far.” Hera privately thought she’d gone way too far. And Alistair refusing to take advantage of it wasn’t going to dissuade her. More likely it would only make her feelings stronger.
Then again, he was there to convince her he was an honorable person, wasn’t he? She keyed open the channel so he could hear. “Change the subject,” she said. “Ask her how she came to the farm.”
“Maybe we should leave that for the moment,” said Alistair. “Tell me something else. Tell me how you fit in, here on the farm. Tell me how Sage became Zita, and what it means to you.”
“All right,” said Zita. “If that’s what you want. But we’re not done yet.”
“Not until I get the Relics,” he said.
“And other things.”
The bishop still thought of themself as Sage when the Gavidarians left. Believed that they would soon rejoin the Church, help them retrieve the Relics, and perhaps afterward find an honored retirement. But the Church itself was in no hurry to return to Eddy, and the new administrators sent from Lexington to maintain the water supply for out-system transportation were even more neglectful of the Hoozu than the Gavidarians had been.
There was no need to hide, anymore. But at the same time, Sage developed a reluctance to return. No one on Lexington knew what had happened to the Relics. No one on Eddy knew that a bishop had been hiding out there, apart from those who kept Sage supplied, and most of those were now dead. There was no reason to think the Church would come looking, if Sage simply waited to reveal themself.
Was the new human administration on Lexington ready for the responsibility of holding the Relics again? The Gavidarians themselves might be gone, but the psychological wounds still pervaded human society. Could the new leaders be trusted? There had to be some way to judge that, before Sage could reveal their survival. It was the only opportunity to be careful. Once Sage’s existence was known, the Relics would eventually return to the control of the Church. There would be no opportunity to refuse.
Entering the small community of farmers on Eddy as a genderless bishop would have caused a sensation, so Sage chose the quieter path, the secret path, and reclaimed her original gender. She tossed away her bishop’s robes, and before long the part of her identity which had been built on the Church’s authority began to fade away as well. She emerged as Zita, a woman old enough that her penchant for philosophy wasn’t too conspicuous. And old enough that she could take a mentorship role on a farm, and serve in the physically-undemanding role of market representative which was culturally reserved for the elderly.
The natural fit was a farm led by her only surviving supply contact from the days of the Occupation, an old acquaintance who had a natural opening for a market representative because most of the workers who found their way to his farm were young men. A farm that was doing humanitarian work, on a personal scale, and could make her feel like she was still doing something worthwhile with her days instead of simply waiting for clarity.
After all, Sage had spent the whole Occupation waiting for clarity. And while from time to time they thought they had found it, in retrospect Zita suspected those moments had been illusory. Clarity maybe wasn’t as important as getting your hands dirty. At least, that was Bonney’s position, and while Zita was too old for some of the most back-bending chores, he found plenty of work for her to do. The physical work of farming, and also the personal work of helping him deal with some of the farm’s most difficult cases.
No one was here unless he wanted to be here, but a desire for a different life didn’t always lead directly to an ability to pursue it effectively. Bonney handled problems with drugs and violence himself, but happily recruited Zita’s assistance with the more-complicated personal issues.
One woman in particular stood out that first year. When the Gavidarians had gone, and Lexington hadn’t rebuilt a government yet, many of the farm workers had left, for Lexington or elsewhere. Most of them thought their crimes would be irrelevant to the new human government, or at least that there would be an amnesty. A few with more serious crimes on their records decided they wanted to get back to them, now that there wasn’t a harsh colonial government to chase them down.
But there was a small, blonde woman who didn’t quite make it into that second group. Zita didn’t try too hard to remember her name; it wouldn’t be fair to share it in any case. Her crimes, as far as they knew, were not so great, and she had never truly fit on on the farm. Bonney had found her with drugs several times, and she was one of the first clients he handed off to Zita, relieved to be able to give up trying to get through to her.
And yet, when she had the opportunity to walk away, something stopped her. It wasn’t Bonney, or Zita, both of whom expected the young woman to vanish at any time. It wasn’t the farm work, which she approached as begrudgingly as ever when she couldn’t find an excuse to get out of it entirely. Perhaps there was something within her that really wanted to reform, however difficult she found the task of actually doing it. So Zita met with her as frequently as the young woman would allow. Some weeks that was nearly constant; others she would hide in her bedroom and refuse to talk to anyone. Bonney still caught her with drugs from time to time.
But Zita felt like they were making progress, at least some of the time. And after all, she stayed. If there had been any temptations on Eddy itself she might have fallen into them easily, but the quiet agricultural settlement devoted to not attracting the attention of the Gavidarians had gotten even quieter now that they were gone. Much of the population had left, now that leaving was possible. The remaining farmers mostly stuck to their farming. Social events, when they happened, were domestic and low-energy, not something to appeal to a dissolute young woman. And she remained resistant to actually leaving the moon.
They worked through that in their sessions. Zita thought that if they could get to the bottom of the young woman’s subconscious refusal to run back to her former life, they could discover what it was she really wanted. She didn’t seem unwilling to be responsible and kind, she just never, ever thought of it herself. And though she didn’t show any improvement on that score, Zita maintained hope that deep down she was trying to figure it all out. That coaching and providing examples would eventually get her there.
Where it actually got them, then, at the culmination of their philosophical discussions, was a great surprise to Zita. A great disappointment. After months of continued effort she’d put away the expectation of the young woman simply leaving in the night. And indeed that wasn’t quite what happened. When she finally did give up, she had to share her reasoning. Zita often wished she hadn’t.
The young woman had come to the conclusion that what was keeping her there wasn’t a subconscious desire for a more-responsible lifestyle at all. When she finally thought through what she really wanted for herself, she discovered that she was only staying because Zita and Bonney wanted her to. That she had been molding herself to their expectations.
When Zita pointed out that she had always been free to leave, she didn’t argue, though Zita could tell that she wanted to. She simply took advantage of the fact, finally. Talking to Bonney about it afterward, Zita had to admit there was no point in asking her to stay.
He didn’t have as hard a time accepting the decision as Zita did. He had been there longer, had more clients slip through his fingers. But he also hadn’t been spending so much time with her. Hadn’t grown attached. Hadn’t felt the same hope.
He didn’t tell her it was foolish. He didn’t have to.
After that others came, simpler situations, as the population of Eddy began to recover. Once the human government began to operate, there were once again criminals who sought rehabilitation over stronger punishments. And the other farms grew as well, with former slaves seeking a simple, quiet life as they tried to recover, and with Lexingtonian farmers who wanted land that had never been poisoned. The community grew, and some of the problems grew with it. But they weren’t complicated problems, and dealing with them was centering for Zita.
Most of the clients of the farm were young men who hadn’t set out to be criminal, but fell into it because of social connections, or because they weren’t suited to the limited varieties of work available to them. The ones who came from Eddy were difficult, sometimes, because if farming would have led them to satisfaction they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place. Men from the asteroids were usually easier. Growing zucchini may not have been exciting to them, but at least it was novel, and that was usually enough to keep them occupied while they reset their expectations.
Before long Zita found a comfortable place in the formula for those clients, helping them explore ideas for what they really wanted to do with their lives. Teaching them direction, and the power of setting their own goals, was usually enough. Many of them left the farm for productive roles in society without even seeing through a full harvest cycle. Zita gained a sense of accomplishment from them, and a sense of competence, but they were never around long enough for her to form real attachments. Nor did they write, to speak of their new lives and new horizons.
The ones who kept in touch were the more-complicated successes, and sometimes the not-quite-successes. It was disconcerting to get letters from former clients who were just one step ahead of the authorities. And more disconcerting to have to lie to those authorities about knowing nothing, because the entire concept of the farm would fall apart without the expectation of confidentiality.
One young man had thought he was using the farm as a cover to gain access to easy money. He was good with numbers, but hadn’t been quite good enough not to get caught when post-Occupation audits became obligatory. Stealing from the Gavidarians wasn’t regarded as much of a crime, but he had kept on doing it after they left. He claimed force of habit, and the court decided it would be punishment enough to revoke his credentials and send him to the farm for rehabilitation.
He took up their books quickly enough. The farm, of course, had long experience with perpetrators of financial crimes, and robust structures for keeping them in line. And indeed, he never tried anything even slightly shady while he was there. He naturally formed relationships with the other residents who held duties that weren’t actively farming, including Zita and Bonney.
And from everything they could see, he took the experience seriously. His working sessions with Zita were heartfelt and earnest, and his friendly ones were personable and kind. He treated his peers well, as well as the permanent staff. There was nothing whatsoever to make them think that he was anything but a man who had taken advantage of the Gavidarians, as was natural, and then gotten too caught up in it to shut his scams down when the Occupation ended.
They were pleased to certify him ready to return to society, and even more pleased when he chose to stay. It seemed to be more out of camaraderie with the permanent staff than love for the farm, and certainly not love for the cold, indoor life of Eddy. But his options on Lexington would have been very limited. He had never acquired any skills beyond accounting. He made several hearty attempts to learn the processes of farming, and each time his supervisor came to Bonney pleading for the young man to go back to his books.
So three years after the accountant had come, Bonney found himself making a virtual deposition to a Lexingtonian court, testifying his full-faith belief that the young man was rehabilitated to a point where he could be allowed to test to regain his license. He believed it. Zita believed it. Everyone else believed it.
So it was a shock, six months later, when they learned he was once again charged with embezzlement. And this time there was no Gavidarian excuse. But there also wasn’t an arrest, and not long afterward the letters began to arrive.
The first one was apologetic and self-critical, but he had lied so well beforehand that they weren’t quite sure how to approach it. In the end Zita and Bonney wrote back to him separately, not accepting his apology, but hoping he would find some way to take responsibility and resolve his situation. Bonney even suggested that turning himself in might lead to a return to the farm. Zita wasn’t willing to go so far. Even if she thought that was a good idea, there was a court record of how well he had fooled them before. Surely he wouldn’t be allowed to return.
In any case, he hadn’t turned himself in, and as his flight from the law grew more routine, his letters became more conversational. The letters were sent to the farm as a whole, and Zita and Bonney took loose turns replying to them. But the accountant–the embezzler now, she supposed–never replied directly to anything they wrote. They weren’t sure he even received the replies, even after he found a way to a new identity and a new permanent address.
He must have known how foolhardy it was to keep up such an incriminating correspondence, especially after he married and started a family, but something seemed to compel him to continue. Bonney never gave up writing back, and convinced Zita to continue every time her willingness lagged. He said the connection meant something, somehow.
There were others she connected with more productively, and some of them stuck around, either on their own farm or moving to other farms in the Eddy community. Women, especially, seemed more interested in staying, finding partners among the farmers, and forming homesteading families. Some of them couldn’t believe that the exploitative Lexington of the Occupation had changed for the better. Others just didn’t want to face the familiar places. Eddy was an easy place to settle down.
And for Zita it also turned into a place of settling down, though she never had a thought of taking a romantic partner. She got used to the life of helping people, and of selling zucchini. She fit in with them, perhaps more than the bishop Sage would ever have imagined.
“I’m not sure you fit in so well here,” said Alistair.
“You’re not a criminal. You don’t need rehabilitation. You would be a hero to all of Lexington if you returned.”
“The difference between a hero and a criminal isn’t as wide as you might expect,” said Zita.
“It’s as wide as he expects,” said Kelly. Hera privately saw their point, although she thought it supposed more self-awareness in Alistair than really existed. Fred sent along a meme of a frighteningly-narrow canal. But of course the two of them could hardly criticize Alistair on that account. They’d done plenty of dishonest things, and it wasn’t only Gavidarians who had been hurt.
“I was caught stealing once,” said Kelly. “That’s when I got sent to the mines.”
The old, self-possessed Kelly had thought of themself as a hero. So had a lot of the conservative establishment. Hera still wasn’t sure where this one was, mentally, except back in Springwood again. This time before the disaster.
Hera was tired of being reminded of Springwood. She hoped they wouldn’t have to track Kelly through the Sawgrass Temple again. Hera knew it had been ruined, of course, but she successfully kept that knowledge out of her consciousness most of the time. That part of her life was from a different world, one which had never known the Gavidarians. And the Hera who had lived it was equally different, even if her memories sometimes surfaced to bother the Hera of the present.
Alistair was talking, and she should be paying attention to what he was saying. Some philosophy about the difference between a hero and a criminal, and whatever it was, Hera was sure it wasn’t anything he truly believed. Whatever honesty he had found earlier in the conversation was slipping away into his normal method: lie until he got what he wanted.
Hera wondered if he saw how much he was truly like the people in Zita’s story. She was pretty sure Zita wasn’t ignorant of the fact. She might have been leading him into a trap with her choice of stories. Although self-awareness traps were not a weakness of Alistair’s. Hera knew that for certain.
He was asking Zita why her most-memorable stories were the ones about failures.
“Were they failures?” she asked.
Alistair was nonplussed by the question. “Neither of them rehabilitated.”
“From their perspective, it might have been a failure,” said Zita. “Certainly it was a failure from the perspective of the farm. But for me, personally? It’s more complicated.”
“I don’t understand. What did you win, in these stories?”
“Win? I don’t know that I won. But I might have gained. Experience, if nothing else.”
“The journey is its own reward?”
“No. But if I look at my actions, and not the results, I don’t think I did so badly.”
“That’s because your results didn’t end in the heavy metal mines,” said Kelly in the feed.
“I don’t know that I would be happy if I didn’t win,” said Alistair.
“That was their problem,” said Zita. “They wanted to win, and they couldn’t change their understanding of winning.”
“And you couldn’t help them,” said Alistair.
“I did everything I could,” said Zita. “That’s the gain. To do everything you can, and do it again, and do it again, because the person in front of you always deserves the chance. To not be disheartened.”
“Even though there’s no progress?”
“I like to think I’m getting better,” said Zita. “Showing more compassion. Getting less defensive.”
“Making it easier for them to take advantage of you.”
“You could look at it that way.”
“I suppose you couldn’t do otherwise,” said Zita. “Then again, you’re finding it harder to take advantage of me than you expected.”
“You don’t seem to be interested in giving me the same trust,” said Alistair.
“The stakes are somewhat higher,” said Zita. “There’s only one set of Relics. And I’ve learned to talk through things extensively, and be patient, before making decisions.”
“You haven’t taken against us, then?” asked Alistair. “I’m not wasting my time?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Zita. “I’m learning much more here than you ever intended me to.”
Hera had been afraid of that. Her only reassurance was that Alistair was surely doing a better job of this than anyone else could have. However uncomfortable he was getting in this situation, he liked social interplay. He almost certainly wasn’t feeling, in this moment, what Hera would have in his place: the desire to punch someone and get out of there. And as emotionally satisfying as that might have been, it wasn’t going to get them to the Relics.
Just following the conversation was exhausting, and Kelly’s interjections didn’t help. She might be responsible for managing the overall situation, but there wasn’t anything useful she could do but defer to Alistair’s instincts, and his expertise.
She hated that. She actually sent a frustrated meme to Fred, and he sent a laughing one back. That wasn’t usually her language, but at least it lowered the tension a little.
“I’m learning more here than I ever intended to as well,” said Alistair.
Zita laughed. “Many people have that experience.”
“That’s a very Sage thing to say.”
“Sage would have said that only about themself. I mean it about the whole farm.”
“Probably nobody comes here expecting to become an expert in summer squash.”
“You’d be surprised. But only one or two.”
“I didn’t mean to become an expert in heavy metal mining either,” said Kelly. “Nobody wants to be an expert in heavy metal mining at fourteen.”
Hera wasn’t sure if Kelly was comparing the farm to a Gavidarian labor camp, or just reacting freely. The priest was getting more coherent, more responsive to what was going on in reality, but was it so much that they should start being worried about the information they were sharing?
“Should we take them out of the feed?” she sent to Fred and Jean. Fred just sent a shrug meme back, but Jean was in favor of letting things continue and seeing where they went. Hera decided they might as well go with that, for now.
“Can we get back to the Relics?” said Alistair.
Zita shook her head. “We can get back to the stories. What do you think about those people I told you about?”
“They took advantage of you,” he said. “Used you for your credibility. And your credulousness.”
“And was that wrong of them?”
“Can I have an answer for that? If I say it was, I’m a hypocrite. If I say it wasn’t, I’m a scoundrel. Either way you’ll never trust me with the Relics.”
“That’s why I asked,” said Zita. “That’s why I told you the stories. We’ve spent the whole conversation getting to the point where you can admit the problem.”
“And what is the problem? I want to hear it in your words.”
“The problem is that I know you’re a scoundrel, and I have to decide whether to trust you anyway.” Zita sat back and let Alistair think about that for a while.
“Like joining the Resistance,” said Kelly.
Hera was startled enough to break through her intention to just let Kelly go without replying. “When were you in the Resistance?”
“Afterward,” said Kelly. “For a while.”
After what? After the flood, it must have been. Teenage Kelly must have done something with their life then, Hera supposed, something so completely off the record that no one had suspected there was a survivor. A brief time in a Resistance cell might explain that.
Alistair had made a decision and sat forward. “I think the problem is that you need a scoundrel,” he said. “If you could retrieve the Relics by climbing into a ship and going, you would have done it already. You wouldn’t be here talking to me.”
“I’m too old for that sort of thing now,” said Zita.
“Now who’s having a hard time telling the truth? We know the Rosetta Stones are hidden in places where they’re very hard to acquire. The Relics, probably the same. You’re playing that we need you more than you need us, but you’ll never get them back without us, or someone like us. People who are willing to be bold, and dishonest, and act like the end justifies the means. Because this end is so huge it does justify the means.”
Hera wasn’t sure she liked that idea, and she was certain Jean didn’t. But Jean stayed quiet about it in the feed. Zita, surprisingly, was nodding.
“I do need someone like you,” she said. “I just don’t know if it’s you specifically.”
“I don’t know how many action teams you think Lexington has to offer right now,” he said. “It’s us or nobody.”
“It could be nobody, for now,” said Zita. “We put the Relics in places they’ll be safe for thousands of years, if necessary. We didn’t know how long the Occupation was going to last.”
“The Rosetta Stones are more fragile. If the one we saved from the Gavidarians is any example, they won’t last a tenth that long.”
“They weren’t the only method we devised for finding the Relics,” said Zita. “Only the fastest. There are other clues for other times.”
“But we’re here now,” said Alistair.
“So you are,” said Zita. “Why don’t you tell me something about how you found me? Convince me that you’re the sort of scoundrels I can count on to be effective.”
“I already answered your questions about that.”
“Tell it as a story,” said Zita. “And tell the truth this time. I know you didn’t come out here just to learn about your cousin.”
So Alistair started over from the beginning, or near the beginning. Hera didn’t need to hear how this version of the story was different than the first one had been. She left that to Fred and Shale, who would be better at picking up on those little details anyway. She was more interested in talking to Kelly, and that was better done in person.
The two priests were both still in Fred’s quarters, and Jean disconnected from the feed when Hera came in. “When you logged off I thought you just needed to use the bathroom.”
“I’d have taken the feed in there,” said Hera. “But Alistair can handle himself for a few minutes. Really he’s been handling himself the whole time. We haven’t added much.”
“I haven’t had any idea where this is going.”
“No kidding,” said Hera. “But he seems to be keeping up with her, at least. Anyway, I need to talk to Kelly. We should bring them out.”
“The feed has been stabilizing,” said Jean. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”
“We’re going to provide stimulation instead,” said Hera. “Or I am, anyway. I need to know more about the things Kelly is talking about.”
“I’m not sure they’re even real,” said Jean.
“I am,” said Hera. “I recognize some of them.”
So they unhooked Kelly from the feed. The young conservative priest was more focused now, and completely willing to engage Hera in conversation.
“What happened to you after the disaster?” Hera asked.
“I survived the flood,” said Kelly.
“Yes, what happened after you survived the flood?”
“People found me,” said Kelly.
“What kind of people?”
“Church people. Not good church people.”
Hera had her own opinions about what Kelly thought were good Church people, but all right. “Did they hurt you?”
“Oh, no!” said Kelly. “No, they wouldn’t hurt anyone. They wouldn’t even hurt Gavidarians. Said Milo wanted us to show compassion to everyone.”
“That is what he said,” said Hera.
“You didn’t show compassion to Gavidarians,” said Kelly.
“I was never very good at religion,” said Hera.
Kelly laughed, for the first time since escaping Malachite. Jean raised their eyebrows at that. More fast progress? Or just a weak joke at a time when any stimulus was a strong stimulus?
“They weren’t either,” said Kelly. “They were the first ones who wanted me to be a priest. But I didn’t do it well enough for them. They preached compassion, but what they meant was weakness.”
This was beginning to sound disturbingly familiar to Hera. “And this was in Springwood?”
“Yes, in Springwood,” said Kelly. “I didn’t work out as a priest, the first time. We all agreed on that. So when they kicked me out I tried to join the Resistance.”
“And you’re sure this is your story? Not someone else’s?”
“Who else’s would it be? I’m not sure of very much right now but I remember those things happening. I haven’t remembered those things happening… in a long time.”
That story was too close to Hera’s own for comfort, but how could it be Hera’s own? As far as she knew, no one alive knew that she had ever studied religion, much less in Springwood. And the mining disaster itself could only be Kelly’s own experience.
The part about compassion being weakness, though… she had said that herself, at one point. As part of her own rejection of a religious sect and eventual path to the Resistance. That was long before the Springwood mining disaster.
There was an ancient myth about Resistance fighters, in another war, in another age, where some of the freedom fighters had also been experimental subjects. The experiments, and the trauma around them, had taken away the fighters’ memories and refilled them with pieces of each others’ past experiences, so no one knew quite who they were anymore. Hera was unsettled by the thought, but that couldn’t be what was happening here. Could it? Could questioning Kelly bring her certainty somehow?
“So you joined the Resistance. What happened there?”
“That didn’t work either,” said Kelly, and Hera was a little bit relieved. She had managed to fit right into the Resistance, a relief after the disappointment of the religious sect she had fallen into after the death of her fiancé in the first days of the invasion. After the disappointment of being rejected by her family, who didn’t approve of her choice of partner or his religious affiliation. The Resistance had felt like home to her after that, and she was grateful that Kelly’s memories didn’t match up in that regard.
“Why didn’t it work?” said Jean.
“I was never sure they hadn’t been responsible for destroying the dam,” said Kelly. “They denied it, of course. But we were trained to deny everything.” Hera could understand that. “Everyone was uncomfortable around me, when they knew I was a survivor. So I learned not to talk about it at all.” Not talking about your past was as welcome in a resistance cell as it was on Bonney’s farm. But for Kelly, coming in the immediate aftermath of the disaster into two groups of people they couldn’t trust, it must have meant never even processing it. A repression that led to its return in a new moment of trauma.
“In my experience, the Resistance was more than happy to let people escape talking about their past,” said Hera.
“Oh, yes,” said Kelly. “That wasn’t a problem. Or maybe it was a problem because it kept me from forming relationships with the others. Demonstrating that we could trust each other. Maybe if we had been able to do that, some of them would have chosen to stand with me in the end.”
“There was a different conflict?” said Jean.
“They were so disorganized,” said Kelly. “Everyone doing their own thing. No leadership. No consistent planning. No long-term goals, just harass the Gavidarians in any way they could. I wanted to change that.”
“And you were how old at this point?” said Hera.
“Does it matter?”
“If you thought you could run a Resistance cell.”
“I was an adult. Everyone was an adult then. The Gavidarians made us grow up fast. People are softer now. But I could have done it.”
“But they didn’t believe in you,” said Jean. Hera thought that was a bit too sympathetic, but Kelly reacted.
“They all died because of it,” they said. “Not too long after.”
Hera had seen a lot of Resistance cells during the occupation, with a lot of different styles of leadership. And one thing they had in common was that almost all of them had died, eventually. Fighting the Gavidarians wasn’t a safe activity. Kelly obviously thought their leadership could have made a difference, but Hera was more inclined to believe that the young not-yet-priest had escaped death from Gavidarian weapons by getting out of the cell when they had. In those days many different choices had all led to the same place. Hera wasn’t deluded enough to believe that she had escaped death out of some special virtue of her own. It was chance that she was alive at the end of the Occupation while other, better members of the Resistance were not. Chance or the will of Milo, anyway, and the will of Milo wasn’t something Hera was prepared to worry about.
“So you left,” said Jean.
“I might not have, if anyone had stood with me,” said Kelly. “We could have made our own group, shown them how powerful we could be with a little bit of organization. With real leadership. But you can’t demonstrate the value of leadership by yourself. So I had to leave. I had to find a place that would value my contributions.”
“And did you?” said Jean.
“Oh yes,” said Kelly. But they were interrupted from going on by Shale alerting them that Alistair was finishing his story and they were needed back in the feed.
They plugged Kelly back in, and Jean followed Hera out of Fred’s quarters. When they were out of Kelly’s earshot Jean asked just how much of that story Hera had believed.
“I think there’s truth behind their perceptions,” said Hera. “Obviously there was no real chance of any large Resistance cell accepting a power play by a traumatized teenager. But I believe Kelly tried it, and I believe they thought it was a good idea at the time.”
“It sounds like they still think it was a good idea,” said Jean.
“They’re not exactly in a mental state to be self-critical,” said Hera. “If we asked those questions at a different time we might get more thoughtful answers.”
“Are you gaining sympathy for Kelly?”
“Maybe I’m just tired.”
By the time Hera got back into the feed, Alistair had finished talking and Zita was telling a story of her own. Well, not quite of her own; unlike the previous two, neither Zita nor Sage was a character in this one. It seemed to be a story of the farm from before she had arrived. Hera had expected that another round of information-war badinage was called for after Alistair’s story, but apparently Zita was more interested in diving right into making her point through narrative.
Her main character in this one was a man, and a man who was particularly poorly-adjusted to society. He was sent to the outer planets as a punishment, but was unable to learn discipline in the military or the asteroid mines, and eventually they got sick of his attitude and sent him to the farm. It must have taken a lot of bad behavior to get that reaction from miners in the early days of the Occupation.
And his time at the farm was not any more successful, though the leadership team at the time was of the opinion that he really was trying to rehabilitate. But even the light temptations of Eddy during the Occupation were irresistible to him, and it wasn’t long before he found a way to leave the moon and get into further trouble. When he was brought back a second time, his captors were the crew of a free Resistance ship much like Hera’s team had operated in later years. They had narrowly rescued him from capture by the Gavidarians, but were very definite in their unwillingness to let him be a part of their organization. Hera reflected that he must have been even more toxic than the young Kelly.
But near-capture by the occupying aliens and a complete rejection from the usual choice of last resort had finally sobered him. The Resistance crew had not been afraid to tell him to his face how unwelcome he was, and why. It was a profound insult, but with the help of an elder member of the farm, a woman who held a role very similar to Zita’s current one, he was able to pass through the initial reaction of his ego and reflect on just how justified their opinion of him had been.
It was the sort of humbling moment that demonstrated the fundamental appeal of growing courgettes. This time his motivation focused, and he not only learned the operations of the farm more thoroughly than any previous client, he found ways that they could surreptitiously help the Resistance. Before long the farm was feeding the very crew who had rejected him, and he took great pride in proving himself helpful to them after all. He also found satisfaction in guiding younger troubled people to the fulfillment that could be found in responsibility.
“I’m not sure I understand why you told me that story,” said Alistair.
“No?” said Zita. “Hm.” It was obvious she expected him to work it out for himself.
Fortunately he had the feed to help him. “Three parables is a traditional structure,” said Jean.
“What, this is a sermon?” said Fred.
Jean ignored him. “If the first was Truth, and the second was Compassion, then inevitably the third parable is about Persistence.”
“But I’m not going to stop trying,” said Alistair.
Zita smiled. “Your friends see it even when you don’t.”
“That’s what they’re for,” said Alistair. “You keep trying to decide if you can trust me. Really it’s whether you can trust all of us together.”
“And you think I can?”
“Hera passed your test with the Hoozu. I don’t know if I’m passing this one, but you haven’t sent me away.”
“You’re doing all right,” said Zita.
“I can’t prove that I’m fundamentally truthful,” said Alistair. “We’ve been through that. And I can tell you that we seek the Relics out of compassion. That we’re not looking for personal gain but simply to return Milo’s most-prized possessions to Lexingtonian society.”
“I’m not sure Milo himself prized them,” said Zita. “They became that later.”
“Either way,” said Alistair. “I can say that but they’re just words. You don’t know that they’re true. It’s the same problem again.”
“I see that,” said Zita.
“But the one thing I can prove is persistence,” he said. “I can stay here until you believe in that.”
“You’ve been doing that already,” said Zita. “This conversation must be draining for you.”
“I tend to thrive on high-pressure social situations, actually.”
“To your friends, then. Your friend Hera must be exhausted by now.”
“No shit,” said Hera in the feed at the exact time Fred sent a meme saying the same thing. Alistair cracked up at that and had to explain it to Zita. It broke the tension a little bit.
“The man in the story,” said Alistair. “He kept going at the same thing until he succeeded. He didn’t know how to make something of himself, but eventually he learned.”
“And what does that mean to you?” said Zita.
“That you want to see something of that in us,” said Alistair. “We don’t know how to find the Relics. We even failed once, already, to get one of the Rosetta Stones. But we’re here because we’re not going to give up.”
“Or you just keep beating your head against the wall,” said Kelly.
“You heard the parable,” said Jean. “That’s what Zita wants.”
“To try the same thing over and over when it doesn’t work?” said Kelly.
“You left the Church and then joined it again,” said Jean.
“I didn’t go back to the pathetic sect that found me after the flood,” said Kelly. “When I left the Resistance I was looking for people who believed in authority, in power, in concentrated action.” That was a painfully familiar set of sayings to Hera. Where had Kelly gone, exactly? “I found that in the Church, but it wasn’t the same Church.”
Hera now had a pretty good idea what Church it had been. A very specific idea. That particular idiosyncratic interpretation of Milo’s principles, that “concentrated action.” She had memorized them once, as a young woman who wanted to understand and support the man she thought was the love of her life. She had fought with her family over it when they couldn’t understand. Broken ties with them over their mutual intransigence. And then lost it all when the Gavidarians invaded, and she learned that Church wasn’t interested in Hera as anything other than an attachment to her late fiancé. When it was too late to make amends with her lost family.
Jean may have thought Hera was gaining sympathy for Kelly, but if Kelly was coming from that church, there was never going to be any sympathy to be found. Hera had directed her anger at the Gavidarians, to fame and, if not fortune, at least continued gainful employment. But deep down they weren’t the only source of it. She had never thought the Gavidarians owed her anything.
Her father’s last words for her had been about the consequences of relying on people who thought power was the true meaning of compassion. And she could never tell him how right he had been.
Alistair and Zita were still going on, but Hera could no longer follow the conversation. She cut herself out of the feed, and once she had, realized that she was shivering uncontrollably.
It took all the energy she had left to choose to go to her own quarters instead of Fred’s. To take all of that concentrated anger away from the urge to violence against Kelly, and turn it instead into weeping into her own bunk. And eventually into the sleep her body and brain desperately needed.
It was Fred who found her, later, with food and coffee and painkillers, and the news that they were traveling away from Eddy, and away from fraught resonances with the distant past. Alistair had managed to trade Kelly for the information contained in the stick blender, somehow. Persistence, she supposed. The traumatized young priest would be cared for on the farm, and maybe even rehabilitated, though Hera couldn’t imagine them ever earning her forgiveness. And while Zita wasn’t willing to tell them how to decode the Rosetta Stones themselves, she had agreed to provide the information within the one they had already acquired.
It was another test. Alistair had reasoned that the only way they could prove they weren’t seeking the Relics for personal gain was to actually find one. And Zita had reluctantly agreed.
So the ship was headed for a point in space near the system’s fourth planet, where the automated capsule containing the First Cup was scheduled to be when they arrived. Without the complications of a stowaway prisoner with unpleasant associations. All Hera had to deal with now was Alistair on the ego-high of a successful mission, an AI whose loyalties no one was quite sure of, and the prospect of a Gavidarian agent still out there trying to get to the prize before they did.
She was glad for the painkillers.
Chapter 6 of Hera of Lexington is coming June 7.
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