Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius
“Rather than calling you ‘P’ then, perhaps I should call you ‘Pi’? I’ve been reading a bit about the original Ophiuchian language and that seems to be appropriate...”
who had killed Mladen
who had become Mladen
who had passed on memories to Mladen
—who had taken over Mladen’s life stared at Atienna with wide eyes.
Slowly, Pi nodded.
Jericho’s rage pulsated beneath the surface, but the peacekeeper’s mind was too focused on the task he was currently pursuing for it to take Atienna over.
Atienna sighed, closed her eyes, felt the cold of the ice wall behind her press through her layers of clothing. She tried to amalgamate the information she had gathered from Pi and from Cadence’s end.
Firstly, ELPIS was not a new terrorist organization. It was an ancient one. Secondly, what was assumedly ELPIS’s original founders passed on what were essentially their souls and memories to people near death’s door via resistors. In a sense, Atienna thought, that was strangely similar to the way to how True Conductors came to be. Curious. Thirdly, every experience an ELPIS leader underwent while in someone else’s guise was lost when the ELPIS leader ‘died’ and entered another person’s guise.
Really… what a ludicrous existence.
If anything, this just proved the truth of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. And that truth was rather...
“Unsure…” Pi muttered from beside her. “What to. Do.”
When Atienna turned to him, she found that he was looking at her in askance. How troubling.
“It depends on how you view your current self,” Atienna drew uncertainly. “Would I be correct in saying that you don’t agree with ELPIS’s current trajectory…?”
Pi froze and nodded. He let out a breath that clouded the air before his eyes widened and he stared off into the distance. “Have I… Past me. Done that. Too?”
If Pi’s vitae had occupied Major Ersatz previous to its current occupation of Mladen, then the answer was clear.
However, Atienna remained silent.
An interesting case. An ELPIS leader who did not agree wholeheartedly with ELPIS ideology.
Atienna wondered if she was lucky to have encountered Pi instead of another ELPIS leader. Pi himself did not seem to be as antagonistic as Iota nor as ideological as Theta. Atienna was uncertain if this was an aspect of Pi’s faulty initiation or of his true nature. Or… Perhaps it was that Pi was lucky to have encountered her. Such hubris.
“Do you consider,” Atienna began, “how you are now as a uniquely different to all those other versions of you? Do you think you should take responsibility for those actions or will you move forward without looking back? Which way do you think is right?”
These were answers Atienna truly wanted to know.
Pi stared at her blankly. Instead of answering, he stated, “You… no fear...”
Atienna offered him a thin smile. “I must admit that I am more curious”—and furious—“than afraid.”
“You. Scary,” Pi said, nodding. “A little.”
Atienna blinked in surprise. “Shouldn’t our reactions be reversed…?”
Pi shrugged before studying her hesitantly. “Now you know. What do. For you?”
“I’m wondering that myself…”
When Atienna learned of the Specialist children being taken advantage of by the Campanas, she felt her heart sink. She had always known that activities such as these were commonplace, but baring witness to it through Cadence’s eyes solidified it as reality as compared to fiction on paper.
Then when Atienna witnessed Werner taking on Cadence’s pain in that cold, dimly lit cellar, she was filled with emotions she could not dissect in one sitting. A sense of unity, a sense of sadness, a sense of guilt, a sense of worry, a sense of happiness.
Going along with the rush of all of these hard to digest feelings, she found herself prying open the letter she had been neglecting since she’d departed Virgo. She sat in her pocket in the cavern—Pi remained at her side, quiet and contemplative—as she read the curling Virgoan letters:
My dearest sister, Atienna,
I suspect you have put off reading this letter despite your love of reading. I am unsure if this is in part due to your newfound duties or if it is due to the argument we had prior to your departure. But you are kind and caring, so I doubt it is the latter.
I know I have argued against you serving as an advisor to Chiamaka as has father. I am not sure what father’s case is still, but as for me… It isn’t because I don’t believe you can serve as an advisor. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that you will become the best advisor Virgo has to offer. Perhaps, if you choose to do so, you will climb up to become the best diplomat Virgo has ever had.
My reservations come from the fact that I fear you may become like me—rather, like how I was when I was working alongside Usian. Carried away by patriotism and ideology. During that time, I lost sight of what was truly important to me and fell into convolution. I don’t wish the same to befall you. That is all my hesitation and reservations amount to. I am sure, however, you are shaking your head as you are reading this. You are thinking, ‘how can my little brother dare to give me advice about a situation I helped him out of’. And I agree. You are much wiser than I. But I had a feeling that it still needed to be said. You know me and my impulsivity.
I apologize for not telling you all of this directly. Safiyah is right about me not being well-versed when it comes to apologies. But let me just say that she is not well-versed when it comes to it either.
So, yes, my dear sister, the purpose of this letter is mostly to serve as a long-winded apology. I hope my feelings come across clearly and are not lost in my usual drivels and ramblings.
Kamaria, Kichea, father, and I eagerly await your return. I suspect by the time you are reading this, they are near driving me to complete insanity.
As promised, Safiyah and I are tending to your garden together so you mustn’t worry about that. Then again, I do recall Safiyah somehow managing to obliterate your peonies when you asked her to look after them for an hour. I will try my best to protect your garden from her until you return.
To close this poorly formed letter, I would like to leave you with a request. I know this is selfish to ask with you so far away from us and moving forward, but I simply request that you do not forget what is important to you.
Atienna let out a final breath and folded the letter back into the envelope. She sighed in exasperation and pressed the paper to her lips.
As always, Bachiru acted as the final push, the final reminder.
“Pi,” she murmured under her breath, “perhaps all you need to do is realize what is the most important to you out of all of this.”
Atienna knew Kalama’s murderer was still in the cave. Pi’s arrival in the cavern was merely a confounder. She had known since the beginning, but she had refrained from speaking and acting. There was just too much uncertainty. She didn’t know all the details, after all. Because she didn’t know everything. And because she didn’t know everything, she hadn’t made the choice.
She had assured herself repeatedly that she would make a choice. It was just that she just didn’t have the necessary components to make that choice yet.
Information, pattern, hypothesis theory. Or theory, hypothesis, observation, confirmation. It was insufficient.
It had been the same case with her approach of Pi. A threshold of information had been reached before she had chosen to address him.
And until that threshold had been reached regarding Kalama’s case, Atienna had decided that she would just have to deal with the itch of curiosity.
But that was just an excuse. A form of self-deception. Prolonging false peace. Delaying the inevitable.
Atienna realized now that the only information that was required to reach the threshold in this circumstance was this: what was important to her.
And so, when everyone reclused to sleep around the campfire that night, Atienna kept her eyes trained on the Aquarian side of the camp. As usual, there were two people on that side who remained awake and sitting. One was the Aquarian guard on duty and the other—
The other Aquarian was sitting with their back to the campfire and using it as a reading light for note-taking. About half an hour after everyone fell asleep, that person rose from their seat and hovered over Alexei’s sleeping form.
Atienna peered at the posted guard on that side. Sigurd. Perhaps if Nikita Knovak was on guard instead, he would have asked exactly what that person was doing. But Nikita was on watch over Afu, and Sigurd merely looked on with disinterest.
Atienna silently rose from her bedding, cast a look at Sefu who was dozing off on guard behind her, before she slinked over to the hovering figure. She placed a gentle hand on the figure’s pale arm.
Yulia turned back to her with wide eyes. The same eyes Atienna had seen in Jericho and Werner. The eyes of a killer.
“It’s about Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna said quietly.
The light in Yulia’s eyes changed, and suddenly she had the eyes of a mother.
Atienna glanced at Sigurd, who was watching them unmovingly. Atienna pressed gently, “We should speak elsewhere, don’t you think?”
In silence, they walked over to Atienna’s small cavern pocket. There, they reached a standstill, face to face with another. Atienna’s back was to the campfire, so she was able to see the way the orange light stretched thin shadows across Yulia’s unsmiling face.
“So, you are one too. I thought so.”—Yulia was the one to break the silence. “After what happened in Virgo, I suspected another True Conductor was involved. Cvetka did mention that Virgo’s leave from isolation was too sudden… I assume you have one that is close to my dear colonel then. That’s the only way you would know the importance of that name.”
And with that, it was confirmed.
Fritz von Spiel, the Capricornian colonel; Yulia, the Aquarian secretary; and ‘Kovich’, the Specialist child owned by the Campanas, were connected True Conductors.
Atienna had suspected it when she had observed the colonel’s note-taking skill and posture when Werner had accompanied him to the Romano Family meeting. It had been the exact mirror image of Yulia’s posture. Then came their echoed words— “If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart”. And finally, came Yulia’s adoration of the Aquarian author Kovich—which was the name the colonel had addressed the Specialist boy with at the secret Campana meeting Cadence had witnessed. And the connecting piece was...
“Alexei... is that poor boy’s father, isn’t he?” Atienna whispered. “Alexei is Kovich’s father.”
“Alexei is a bastard,” Yulia spat vehemently. “He puts on that face like he’s a saint, but all he cares about is himself.”
Atienna realized that Yulia must have pushed Afu into lashing out at Alexei then. How unpleasant.
Yulia’s voice began to rise: “We all suffered during Aquarius’s economic crisis! I had nothing to eat but a loaf of bread for weeks! But… never did I ever… I never turned my back on my family. I spent months looking for work so I could feed them, and Alexei—he—”
“He sold Kirill—Kovich—to the Campanas,” Atienna finished steadily.
Yulia’s expression folded. “Can you even understand what it feels like to be sold by your father while he holds your hand acting like nothing is wrong? Without a second thought?” Her mask of indifference cracked in the light of the fire, and she stared into Atienna. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to tell Kovich it wasn’t his fault…? No matter what I do—no matter what I think or say—he goes to sleep every single night wondering what he did wrong! I tried to even change his name to distance him from that bastard, but how can Kovich forget his father when every morning he wakes up as a slave under the Campanas—the people that his father sold him to?!”
That distant empathy curled up in Atienna’s chest.
“So, you plan on taking revenge on Kovich’s behalf?” Atienna inquired after allowing a moment for Yulia to recollect herself. “By killing Alexei Drei… using Kovich’s own Specialist conducting? I wonder if that’s considered poetic justice…” She lowered her gaze. “And Kalama…”
“That was a mistake on my part,” Yulia elaborated, tone even. “I was going to kill Alexei when we found ourselves trapped in this cave initially. I was determined to. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for while working under him for all of these years. It would be very easy to cover it up as a cave accident with Kovich’s conducting.” Yulia’s eyes glinted. “…. but then the Piscese diplomats came, and I had to wait and wait… And then you came.” She frowned. “I was… too rash that night. I did not realize that Alexei had given Kalama his jacket… I just saw it, saw the opportunity.” Her frown deepened. “I would apologize, but that would do nothing now.”
“‘Now’,” Atienna repeated. “And what happens now…? If you move forward with this, then… perhaps you’ll frame Afu? Or you’ll say that the murderer came from the portals… which is why you are so attentive to Mladen. You know he is ELPIS. He could be your key out of here… and he may hold information regarding Fritz’s dealings with Omicron, which must somehow involve the Campanas.”
—Though Yulia’s pursuit of Pi indicated that she did not know of their true nature.
Yulia stared at her wide-eyed before she shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly—no, nervously. “Cvetka was right when she said you knew everything.”
Atienna did not know everything, but if Yulia thought that she did, then that was good. That meant that Yulia believed that there was nothing that she could hide from Atienna. Knowledge was power. Knowledge could be used as a trap. Against someone who knew everything, one could do nothing.
“And you’re aware of Cvetka’s nature as a True Conductor?”
Yulia paled slightly. “What…?”
So, she didn’t know.
Yulia was out of her depth, it seemed.
“Yulia… I’m not in your situation,” Atienna drew quietly, “so I won’t truly understand your pain. But… There must be a way for us to reach a peaceful resolution. Enough blood has been spilled, don’t you think? If you try and harm Alexei, you’ll start something that’ll be difficult to stop… You must also consider that Fritz is already on his way to free Kovich—”
“A peaceful resolution? Even if Kovich is free, as long as that man takes a breath, he will still be trapped.” Yulia grimaced. “Didn’t you hear me from the beginning? I don’t care what happens to my country—”
“I don’t care either.”
Atienna looked to the side. “It feels both a relief and a pain to admit it, but I don’t care what happens to Virgo… Although, I wonder if I’m failing my patriotic duty by saying this.”
After all, it was because of ‘Virgo’ that her mother ended up the way she had. It was because of ‘Virgo’ that Bachiru had fallen in with Usian. The concept that the country in itself was more important than the individual—some viewed this as a positive, altruistic perception, and perhaps it was. But not to Atienna.
She wondered if Werner, her father, or her mother would be disappointed in her line of thought.
“I’ve been participating in all of these political things only because it is considered ‘what is right’,” Atienna continued. Because it was what her mother would have viewed as ‘right’. And… “Because if I do it, then I will be able to better protect the things that I do care about.”
Bachiru, Kichea, Kamaria, her father. Even Sefu and Nia. And, of course, now the other five.
A handle—an eye—on the developments of Virgo would put her in a better position to protect them. Everything else that happened was just an inconsequential itch. Something to bide her curiosity. Perhaps.
This was the true choice Atienna had made when she had confronted Usian in front of the Great Tree all those months ago.
“It makes sense,” Yulia said. There was no judgement in her eyes. “It makes sense that we True Conductors would feel similarly. We’re given positions where we’re able to be outsiders looking in. So then—”
“If you kill an Aquarian diplomat and if you choose to divert the blame, you will start something irreversible between all three of our countries,” Atienna interjected, holding up an apologetic hand. “And that will bleed out to other countries—to the people I do care about within those countries and within my own country. That’s something I can’t look away from.”
Yulia’s gaze darkened.
“So, I am asking you, Yulia… I will keep your secret about Kalama… but please do not move any further than this. Let’s leave this behind us and return to the people we care about. You will end up ruining your own happiness if you—”
Yulia abruptly pushed her back by the shoulder. “I do not need your words of advice nor your words of sympathy, Miss Imamu.”
Atienna rubbed her shoulder. “Kovich has been through enough pain already, don’t you think? And any pain you feel, he will surely feel himself.”
Yulia took a single tense step backwards.
“It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but my… tousle with Afu was my choice—my skill—alone.” She met Yulia’s eyes and saw the woman pale considerably. “Perhaps, saying that ‘I am asking you’ is an improper choice of words.”