The enemy sub was in the sight.
For a moment, Elysiane hesitated, thumb poised above her weapon’s trigger. She flicked her brown gaze to the picture adhered to her sub’s control panel: a little girl, dressed in gingham, a man in the dark, blue coat of a sailor. They didn’t count for a third, even, of those she had known and adored since leaving Chyrsalias’ Guardians behind; but they were enough. They were savior alone, without her, the real one.
Because of her, Elysiane was down here again; but it was only for those two that she had thought to accept this duty.
“I have to go,” she had argued. “They’ve done harm to too many!”
The deep gray eyes of her friend and savior regarded her sadly. “Elysiane, you need not do this. Remember your oath to our gods. To peace. In time, the enemy will leave us be.”
Peace was all she stood for, and yet they called her the Heretic.
What are you, Elysiane, when you join the battle like this?
“What does it matter when my husband and child have been crucified?”
In answer, her savior smiled sadly. “We have traveled worlds together, my friend. Do you forget all? Only the hellions concern themselves with such finite notions as war and revenge. We are free souls and safe. That’s all that matters.”
Safe. Elysiane snorted, jerking the steering, turning the sub starboard. She was anything but; if the rumors were true, she too was dead. And for that, the Treligs and their supporters would pay.
The propellers pushed through the waves as she rounded the underwater cliff. There! There they were. She sighted, fired, only to suddenly find herself fired on from behind. How could she have missed the emergence of a second sub from that cave? “Hellions!” The enemy was everywhere!
Her craft lurched through the waves and up toward the surface; fish and various crustaceous beings scurried out of her way. Elysiane peered through the viewing glass, into the depths of the sea, for any sign of her enemy. Clear.
She flicked the autopilot and checked the aft portion of her sub. The damage she could see didn’t please her, but it didn’t demand she return to port.
The hull of her enemy’s submarine appeared on the viewscreen, the state’s curling equal-armed cross and octopus gleaming from its steel.
Its weapons barrel glowed and spit poisonous, gleaming aether through the waves. She took the series of strikes and went spinning out of control. Her family portrait dislodged from its safe place on the control panel and fluttered to the floor of the cockpit. A second shot jolted her sub and sent her head slamming into the ceiling. Alarms, steel and gears protested in loud metallic screams. She yanked the regulator from her emergency case and slipped the small breathing apparatus into her nose.
Her hull burst and she went flying into, not sea, but a dry shaft of silvery light, the light speeding her progress upward. She couldn’t move, but she knew what it was that enveloped her, and sucked her up and into the enemy sub, up past the staring, smirking crew, like a fish caught in a net. She landed hard against the vessel’s metallic floor as the beam dropped her.
As she looked upon the face of the squat, little, three-handed officer who loomed over her prostrate form she knew—
“Welcome Captain.” He stood and trudged to the far door. His companions dragged her to her feet. “Put the heretic in cell 82345.” He smiled over his shoulder at her. A vicious smile for an enemy. She’d seen it all too well, had bestowed it on many herself. “Consider yourself under arrest, Daha Elysiane.”
Daha, traitor. No longer captain.
Elysian knew all too well her capture only meant one thing:
The pressure differences made her head swim, took a few days to get used to. How long had she lived underwater for the battles? Weeks, Months? She took comfort in the fact that the Trelig enemy lived under such light-headedness whenever they emerged to deal with the humans.
The fact didn’t deter them as they read off the litany of her misdeeds.
The Trelig officials knew all, and locked her in the cliff-face prison, sentence to be determined. Elysian cried the first night through, wondering, where were her fellow soldiers? Where her family?
The second night, the passing of the first week, her equilibrium and land legs returned. By the first meeting with her lawyer, she was almost stable again, the land sickness hitting not quite so hard anymore. His news resigned her. Here she would stay, but her small cell couldn’t keep her soul in. It flew out past the hot steam barrier and into dreams and fantasies. Of her home at the edge of the sea. Of her daughter and husband. Where was her daughter? Where her husband? She convinced herself they might still live. The sea crashing against her prison walls helped her dream. The waves beckoned, but the windows were too small for escape, too high, too hot to touch, to hang herself from.
She held her hand into the steam, it warmed her; sweat beaded on her palm.
Her skin turned red, pain crawled up and down her flesh. She gritted her teeth, holding her hand in the steam until she could stand it no longer. She yanked her hand back, cradling it against her chest. No blistering. The steam wasn’t hot enough to seer her skin from bone. No chance to die.
That way lies damnation, the savior always said.
Elysiane soaked her hand in the cool water from her pitcher, wrapped it in rags and took to her pallet, cradling her head in her undamaged hand. She would hate what I’ve become.
The clockwork hand slid through the meal slot and she called, “Hello? I need a doctor!” damning herself for asking their help. The doctor glided through the door, the small wheels comprising his feet clacking softly. His testy sigh hissed out in a thin stream. She thought she saw the steam riding the wave, too used to such things to note it. The doctor examined her hand, but said nothing as he applied a greasy salve and bandage. Before he shut the door, he warned in a tinny voice, “Be more careful, Daha” and nothing more.
Elysiane paced the floor day by day, taking what the guards brought.
Her lawyer looked her over, disdain on his face. “What have you done, child? You’ve disgraced yourself, your family.” The words rang from his throat like from a brass instrument. The metal with which the Treligs had repaired some injury affecting his vocal cords. She had similar spiders of it in her bloodstream, comforting, strange things that helped, the Treligs said, in processing memory and emotion. Maybe that’s how they knew my deeds?
The mech sustained society, the war: The Treligs’ war against her followers–its followers–and for that, she hated it, wanted to claw it out of her flesh.
“Don’t you care at all?” a thread of steam hissed from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t you care for them?”
“The goddess has them now. What do I have to care for?”
“They’ll execute you, you know.” He pronounced her possible fate with a sad shake of his head. “If I were you, I’d think on that.”
She did, constantly, knew it all too well. The possibility, the thought of what death might bring, played in her mind nightly, even as she recited the words her savior had taught. Goddess grant us freedom, goddess grant us hope, goddess grant us love.
Love. She had no love here. Where did love reside within these walls?
She began to doubt such a thing existed, in this room, this world. All she could see was hate, battle, and loss.
A swoop, a growl, a groan of engines passed outside the window and she watched as best she could. Aether blasts lit the sky at night, whining, crashing, splashing sounds woke her from dreams in which she sought comfort. In her husband’s arms, in her daughter’s laughter, these were the things she missed most.
The doors opened day and night, meager food, vicious words arrived.
“She’s dead, you know,” the guard hissed through the little window in her cell door. “And you’re next.” He snapped the window shut before she could utter a question.
She slumped into her pallet and cried for the life she’d lived—and looked forward to its end.
“Sign this,” the Trelig squeaked, the pressure difference, sea to land, affecting his voice, “and you can go home.”
Though at other times she might have reacted with horror to the Trelig’s caterpillar-like, inhuman appearance, it was simply his presence here that drew the feeling from her stomach.
She peered down at the form, reading words that would condemn and erase all her friends, and all she had come to believe.
She pushed it away, into her lawyer’s startled fingers, and glared at the little alien being standing between them at the table’s edge. “I sign this and find myself in Hell.”
“Come now,” her lawyer said. “Confess, and things will go well for you.”
She didn’t ask what things. She had a good idea of what awaited her. Death could be the only end to this farce. “I’ve nothing to confess.”
“Your ship’s databanks say otherwise.”
The databanks. “They say nothing.” She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I destroyed them.”
Her lawyer raised a light brow, tugged on the brass rubbing hanging from a chain around his neck. She thought the scene might be the Blessed Family, and didn’t care. “Not well enough.”
She shifted in her seat, watching not him, but the little Trelig who had laid the confession statement before her. Its face seemed nightmarish, with six almost-square emerald-colored eyes that were too large for its face; its nose a mere pinprick beneath. Its lips flared in a flower-like way with every breath; little feelers accented each side of the mouth.
“I want a priest.”
Her lawyer sighed and slid the confession form away. “It’s your choice.”
A day later, the Trelig came again, trailing behind the priest, waving his papers like a carrot for her to follow. The priest cleared his throat, drawing her attention away from the being. The cleric was a tubby little man with a slab of brass screwed into his cheek. She wondered what he’d suffered to warrant that, but didn’t care to ask. His history didn’t matter.
He settled down before her and slid the confession paper forward. “Won’t you sign the form, my child?”
She moved away from her bed, the scratches she’d marked into the wall, sometimes with her own bloodied nails. “No. I sign it, I’m condemned.”
“But aren’t you now?” the priest asked. “Come, sign it. With your connections, things will go better for you.”
“Will they? I was in hell the minute they sucked me from my ship.”
“Not so, Captain, you have a chance to redeem yourself.”
He called her captain. The first one in she couldn’t remember how long to do so. She twisted her fingers in her lap. “Did my family?”
The way the priest clenched the undamaged side of his jaw, she knew the answer. She sniffled, and set her jaw, her gaze going to the window, focusing on the whine of fighters tearing through the waves below. “I refuse.”
The little Trelig swept the paper up. “So be it. Guardians!”
They swept inside, clamped cold shackles around her wrists, tight enough to bleed. They brought her to the interrogation room, asked questions. She answered none. A slap across the face, a fist, a prod of their weapons didn’t suffice to loosen her tongue.
Days and nights passed, a week, a month? She lost count. The only marker the sun, the Guardians’ visits. Many. She knew these men; in fact, at one time, they would have referred to her by her given name.
Now, they called her only a mundane title: Daha. Traitor. All regard between them was gone; no more would they give her the deference owed to a soldier of her rank. They would never again call her Captain, not without a sneer. In their eyes, she’d grown deaf to the words of sensible society, and now only heard the words of an outsider. She herself was an outsider.
Many times, they questioned, raped her, beat her. She climbed up on a chair, trying to peer down at the ocean, to see the fighter subs outside her window. She could see nothing but sky. She noted the hours the subs trundled past, the hours of quiet. She counted the clack of the clockwork servants who shoved meals through the door slot.
One day the Guardians came again. They dressed her in her tattered uniform, and dragged her to the courtroom.
The elegant hallway spiraled down, its windows looking out into the blue-gray sea, flashes of light, and streaks of red and a deeper gray broke the serenity. Elysiane missed the fresh air, the sunshine, freedom. How long have I been here?
“The battles go well,” muttered one of the guards. “The heretics will surrender soon.”
“Were it not for her, I might still be in battle,” said another.
You don’t want to be. The price wasn’t worth it, this war on both sides of which she had once been, and for which she was now paying dearly.
“There’s battle enough here,” said their elder officer.
Elysiane sighed. How easily she could agree. The guards halted at a massive door, pulling it back and marching her into the courtroom.
Hushed conversation filled the room. Aside from a thin contingent of humans from the ranks of the Federal Guardians, the room held only Treligs: those small, strange beings that had immigrated to her world, so many centuries ago. Elysiane watched them wearily. She and the constables were the only humans here. The others, her judges, were Trelig monsters. As horrific as they seemed, seeing how truly small they were always brought a laugh to her lips. She wondered if they might let her off on an insanity plea.
Clanking, rolling, shuffling noises drew her gaze to the far side of the courtroom. Peering through the crowd of security personnel before her, she spotted another contingent of guards, escorting a small, white box. She gasped and closed her eyes. Mother Goddess. So, it’s true!
She’d seen the propaganda films and knew what must be inside: she lay inside. Her world in a woman, a goddess. Everything. Nothing. A gem of unequalled worth the likes of which never seen in the world; a criminal denounced for treason; a deliverer. A scrap of DNA; a savior no longer.
You know nothing, she thought, glaring at the Treligs just visible beyond the guards’ shoulders. All they knew of her came from glimpses and through the words of others. She was, once, beautiful, intelligent, serene; now, cold, dead, nothing. How in the heavens could they be afraid of that?
They’re all clueless. She eyed the guards and felt sorry for them. Maybe they’d learn. Once counted as one of them, she’d learned, and abandoned the ranks for it. Maybe they would too. The guards stepped away from the witness box; leaving her hands bound.
They warned her of what would happen if she tried to escape. The others set the white box just so, ten to twelve feet from Elysiane’s reach.
“Captain Elysiane,” a Trelig hissed at her, “you supported our enemies; do I have the story clear?”
Elysiane’s nose twitched as she nodded.
Another of the strange race spoke up, “When we have ever not supported your family, I might add?”
Elysiane considered the history of her family’s relations with the Treligs. It wasn’t hard for the humans, and caterpillar-like amphibious Treligs to co-exist; hundreds of years had passed since the Treligs had joined society, and risen easily, quickly to the highest places within it. The two peoples co-existed in harmony. Indeed, humans allowed Treligs to share many public offices, even at the highest levels from their homes under the sea. The world’s delegates even met on the ocean floor once a year.
A minute threat of plague had turned everything upside down. Society split along many lines, a distrust that gave rise to the savior, that had led to. . .all this.
What did the differing political views matter now? Was it reason enough to rip society in half? The battle raging in the seas–and the one here in this courtroom–turned on this question.
“We will not ask why,” said another of the strange judges. “The time for such explanation is long past.”
To whom would I explain it? Those that supported the aliens had their own opinions of these proceedings. Their conversation during her escort into the courtroom didn’t account for even a third of the hatred they felt.
Her skin crawled; the spiders scurried under her skin. “You come before us to agree to one of two sentences.” A tendril-hand waved disgustedly at her. “Your so-called Savior’s fate has been decided; you, however, deserve somewhat more. We will make the necessary arrangements, and–taking your family’s history into account–will do what we can to see your suffering is short-term.” The speaker’s six eyes narrowed. “Or you may choose her fate; but know you have the option of leniency.”
She understood the choices: to be tortured, fully aware of what was to happen, or be put mercifully under sedation while the authorities dismantled her cell by cell. They hadn’t offered her the option of sedation; they had destroyed her body through electrical and chemical means that melted bone, tissue, and DNA little by little, until there was nothing left but a fine, minute strip of cells; and all the while, she suffered unspeakable agony. Elysiane knew. In other days, she’d watched close at hand while they pushed the button.
She shuddered despite every attempt to keep the reaction in check. Fully aware or not, it did not matter. The end result was the same. She hoped they would be kind enough to scatter her ashes into the sea, and not bury them in some pit in a mountain. Such, rumor said, was the traitor’s fate.
“A moment, please.” She paused, and tried desperately to calm the tremors of fear quivering under her skin, “What if I could give you–” What? With their capture of the savior in the box before her, what could she offer? What else did they need if her death had not brought a halt to the conflict?
Nothing. “Do with me as you will.” This was it, then, the final verdict was upon her, and what did it matter? She had spent her life in the only way she knew how, and spent it well, in her opinion. What others thought of her–human or Trelig–mattered not a bit. Her loyalty would remain with her, a conviction she refused to relinquish.
Odd that, she thought, when she had come by it so reluctantly. Her husband had understood, called her his living goddess, long before Elysiane grasped her sublime nature. At first, she seemed to be a madwoman–and true, most of society saw her as such. Her image, when seen through the eyes of the media, certainly came across bizarre, and not a little. Her words and decrees so odd, one could easily believe her insane. Elysiane recalled fighting with her husband about his devotion, at first, but with sweet words so characteristic of her beloved, she had been convinced to give the woman he called friend and savior a chance, that strange, patient, compelling lady they’d come to adore.
Subs rumbled in the deep, swooping across the waters surrounding the tall courtroom windows, leaving trails of glowing aetheric haze. Fire exploded in their wake, and Elysiane’s judges and guards started, and looked to the windows shielding them from the turmoil outside. Elysiane watched with them, holding her breath, wondering if the glass would hold, hoping it would not. As a sub shot by, firing frantically back at its pursuing twin, inside the courtroom the white box shuddered.
Elysiane stared at it. Dare she hope she rise from her ashes, stop all this nonsense here and now?
The coffin lay still again, and she doubted her sanity. No. She had seen nothing, or if so, the concussions of the battle outside had caused the casket’s disturbance. Her ears rang with the fading noise of battle, and as the ringing subsided, she focused on the Trelig judges before her, as they returned to the matter at hand.
“The question of your conviction then–”
Never question your convictions, only theirs. She remembered her friend’s words at the expense of the words of the judges. What did it matter? They were the end of all convictions. Elysiane blinked as the panel asked, “Daha, did you hear?”
She shook her head, wondering. What did it matter what she heard? She was dead, either way. She knew it even as they passed the final sentence. She looked to the white box, pushing aside a desperate hope that her savior would emerge to challenge them. Then looking to the windows again, she saw a sub take a fatal shot, and wished she had met a similar fate, long before now. Far better that than this pathetic end, and as they drew her away to her prison and silent death, the sight of the vessel bleeding out its life in blue bubbles of pain, careening toward the courthouse, caught her eye. She could feel the building shudder with the oncoming impact.
She might lose her life, but so too would they lose something; and perhaps something of worth would take both their places, as her friend and savior had once suggested. Perhaps something wonderful would rise from all this turmoil. The guards hollered curses, and pushed Elysiane toward the prison corridor, west, and the Trelig judges scrambled, worm-like, in search of safety.
The courtroom’s northern door shuddered, cracking along its seams.
The constables shoved Elysiane to the floor and trained their weapons on the entryway. Inspiration lit her thoughts, and Elysiane addressed the nearest officer. She gestured to the glowing pistol in his hands. “Allow me one of those, and you might win this battle.”
The young man looked incredulous, thoughtful, for a moment, and twitched his readied weapon in her direction. “I have a better idea,” he drawled, and paused for effect she didn’t think he needed before adding, “One shot, and I’ll be the hero of the day.”
She couldn’t believe the young constable hated her so much. But she had to try.
“You’re not one of them, you know,” Elysiane reminded, waving a bound hand in the direction of the slug-like superiors. “You’re human too; and we might win this war.”
“I know,” the young officer agreed. “I doubt they’ll consider themselves victorious without taking you, in the process. They want you dead; I want you dead. Do you really think there’s any other conceivable end for your treachery?”
Elysiane gulped and looked to the windows, the waves lapping languidly against them. The beauty of the sea overwhelmed her. She was unwilling to shut her eyes on impending doom, but somehow unable to watch the young man’s gun spout death at her at such close range. There, as if in slow motion, the sub’s hull exploded, shreds of iron cutting through the currents. She sighed a final salutation to the oncoming crash, and downed pilot–indeed to the world at large, “Nice shot.”
An impact shook the room. The space erupted in confusion. The guard grabbed her by the arm, and raised his pistol.
For a moment, everything moved in slow motion. Guards ran for the windows, trying to bolster them up; the Trelig judges scattered.
Then, despite the rumble, the courtroom seemed to freeze in place. She thought she lost her hearing.
“Corporal, stand down!”
The guard blinked and lowered his weapon.
Bewilderment filled Elysiane. Stand down? Why?
She felt a light touch on her bicep, a Trelig stood by her side, its tendril resting, with some effort, on her arm. It handed her a regulator. “Here.” Its expression twitched into what she could only guess a smile, the little feelers at the sides of its mouth trembling with the effort. “Just in case.”
“You have my thanks.” She slipped the regulator into place inside her nostrils. “Why would you do this?”
“Daha Elysiane,” it squeaked, “we would like to speak with you.”
“You’ve gotten what you wished!” Elysiane hissed, taking in its six little eyes and those of the Treligs by its side. “Just shoot. The rebels won’t deprive you of my death in the moments between.”
“No,” the Trelig said. “That is not the subject with which we’d like your assistance.”
“Under the circumstances, Captain,” said the second Trelig, “we wonder if you might assist us with this . . .imminent conflict.” The Trelig nodded its tapered head to the broken door, and the scuffle flooding through it. “Help us take the victory in this skirmish–assist us in this entire war, and–”
“We will eradicate your sentence!” hissed the third, its six eyes wide with excitement.
Elysiane blinked in astonishment. “Help you?” Insane! To do so would be to go against her oaths to the gods. It would go against her oath to her savior and friend. She looked to the white box that held her remains, puzzled, unsure what to do.
“We must put an end to this madness!” insisted the first Trelig. “And if you assist things will go better for you.”
How could she? Elysiane wondered. How could she not? Hadn’t she warned them, begged them not to pursue this course?
If she refused, she faced extinction, no chance for change. There was only one way to correct this grievous mistake that the argument had become.
Elysiane smiled at the group of small beings before her. “If you inter my friend as any respected figure deserves–as a god deserves.”
“Done!” the first Trelig rasped happily, touching a tendril to the locked cuffs.
The restraints sprung open and Elysiane relieved the constable of his weapon.
“Hey!” The constable squeaked in protest but the Treligs glared him into silence.
One offered his delicate hand-like tendril. Elysiane took it, and pulled it close, hissing, “I hold you to your word. Retract the propaganda and find my family. If you hold them still, let them go!”
The three beings narrowed their eyes. “If they live,” she promised, “We won’t bother you again. We’ll leave Chysalias, when this ends.” And to hell with all of you. She didn’t speak the curse aloud. “Agreed!” the three beings promised.
Elysiane released the creature back to his kin, and checked her weapon’s magazine. She scanned the melee, shouted to the nearest guard, and launched herself into the fray of a new life, with renewed conviction.