Utamx Canal District
0630 Hours – 1 Yulitat 2228
Rapids rushed through the canal that snaked through Utama metro. Mists heavy with the scent of eroded quartz rose clung to its northern banks, obscuring the opulent high-rises that overlooked the shore.
Closer to city-center, the rumbling water’s song gave way to chatter, footfalls, and the whizzing of overhead hover traffic. Strong winds bent the youngest dark-bladed trees along the pedestrian path while their thicker-trunked sisters stood impassive within a forest of concrete and glass.
High atop the spherical Bizakask, a digicast screen displayed friendly reminders to the local Utamaxi; cast your vote today—for Velto Wram.
The current representative, an esteemed hizak named Ryl Jyr, had announced her retirement before hibernation. Like most of the native hizaki elite, she supported Wram, despite the bizak being a Toxican.
Sofita, born of those elite, had spent her donational years on the mountain terraces above Lake Utam. House Kul had lived under Utama’s dome since its sealing. When she chronicled such things, Sofita authored a gol about the tragedy that unfolded among her ancestors shortly after Utama’s founding.
Femitokon and Fusofitakil served as Ramaxia’s first Primary and Sernatae, respectively, yet Utama owed its existence to an intelligent bruiser named Balrusok. Femitokon’s most loyal marix, Balrusok, joined the exploratory crew down the massive Utaru River and helped build the first high-elevation base camp, Utam.
Blueprints in hand, hundreds of bizaki conversed around the lake, diving daily to lay pipes, dig foundations, and pave roads on the benthic floor. One project leader, a polar-concrete mixer named Dukjyr, remained in Utam when others moved on; her descendants would establish Line Jyr. Back when Balrusok served as Dukjyr’s protector, she met and fell in love with a bizak engineer named Pikalto, an occasional lover of Fusofitakil.
If there’d been tension between the hizak and the marix over Pikalto, scholars found no evidence of it. However, eyebrows rose when Balrusok parented a marixidoe by Fusofitakil’s other bizak lover, Velixateel. The pair of bizaki had legally bonded and cohabitated with Balrusok, yet history showed Fusofitakil residing elsewhere.
Armed with their private diaries, Sofita proved that Balrusok and Fusofitakil had indeed been intimate, sharing the bizaki in a relationship kept covert due to Femitokon’s edict that no marixi could be involved with her twin.
After Pikalto’s death during the Utama dome’s first sealing attempt, Femitokon learned of Balrusok and Fusofitakil’s relationship. An altercation ensued, and angry words turned physical. Femitokon accidentally killed Balrusok during the scuffle, and in her grief, she took in Pikalto and Balrusok’s orphaned hizakidoe; this donats descendant would create the wealthy Line Sok.
Velixateel, angry that Fusofitakil wouldn’t turn her back on Femitokon, ended her relationship with the hizak. Raising their marixidoe alone, she eventually died during the final sealing of Utama’s dome. Raised by one of Fusofitakil’s lovers, this donats ancestors would establish Clan Balru.
Sofita passed under a bridge bearing Pikalto’s name, where dozens of freshly woken citizens moved slower than usual. Her destination was the Utamx Foodat, a grocery store sandwiched between an hourly goztan and a helovx dry-goods store. The Utafat hadn’t changed in decades, its wall lined with neatly stacked cubes filled with freshly wrapped fish, meat, and poultry. Grains and nuts sat in open face bins beneath layers of shelved beverages.
While examining the variety of shapely glass bottles for something non-carbonated, Sofita heard the familiar and infectious guffaw of a bizak she used to know. Following it, she found the bizzy elbows deep in a barrel of water, rummaging for the right gabishol.
Polar apples, similar in color and taste to a North American red-delicious, matured to the size of an helovx cantaloupe, and the best ones required two hands to lift.
Bottled drink in hand, Sofita idled over to the barrel.
“I eat my weight in these, once a week,” she volunteered.
The skinny Tenth Gen looked her up and down. “That’s not saying much, Komad. For a marix, you’re a little small in certain places,”
“A little-small?” she wondered. “Is that different than a larger-small?”
“In your case,” unimpressed eyes fell to Sofita’s girsuzsch, “no,”
“Some bruisers maintain a sedate build,”
The bizak sighed. “The word sedate makes me sleepy.”
“I just woke up.”
“You sound famished,”
“I could eat.”
“You should eat,” the bizak nodded, again eyeballing her body. “It builds mass,”
“Not all soldiers need to chop ice,”
Eyes brightened. “Can you chop?”
Sofita stepped around to the bizak’s grocery cart.
“Are you trying to recruit me, Citizen?”
“I can always use the help in my deli,”
Sofita tapped at a floating gabishol.
“How do you know which gabish to purchase?”
“It’s not easy figuring out which one to take home.” The bizak lifted one from her cart with both hands and then took a bite before shoving it to Sofita. “It’s all about rind flexibility. Like a well-worn uniform, you want one that strips easily.”
The bizak then pushed the cart onward, leaving Sofita with a bitten gabishol.
Several moments passed before Sofita ventured to the self-checkout. The bizak stood in a traditional lane, chatting up the clerk.
Out of the market, she jogged to the Balrudos.
A four-story covered in lakebed stone, the historic Balrudos sat dwarfed between an upscale gazteneezo and Ramaxia’s largest vintage fashion house. Its ground floor contained the Balrupaxo, a deli-restaurant that had served Cloister employees since its founding by a First Gen.
Down the alley, she found the bizak already atop its rear stairs, arms filled with two polar-weed woven grocery bags. As the bizak struggled to open the door, one of the bags toppled, allowing Sofita a chance to rescue a dislodged palux.
“I suppose I owe you for that save?” said the bizak, entering yet leaving the door open for her.
Sofita entered, closing the door and locking it behind her.
“I informed you when we first met,” she said. “You owe me nothing.”
The bizak dropped the bags onto the counter and rushed into Sofita’s arms. Holding each other tight, hands explored never forgotten territory.
“My couch is on the third floor now,” said the bizak, between kisses.
Sofita wasted no time following.
Little had changed in the eighteen years she’d last been in this room. A thickly braided rug now covered the rock floor, its woven tracks an array of colors she’d never discern.
The round erotic couch she’d purchased decades ago awaited her like an old friend. A bed built for no more than four, the bizak had often chided that Sofita technically counted as two given the size of her girz.
Peeling off her uniform, she watched the bizak undress, and when his undershirt lifted, two mounds of faux flesh fell to the floor. She kicked them aside and sunk to her knees before him, yanking his pants down with determined hands. When his aroused clasper bobbed up to greet her, she eagerly took it into her mouth.
On his couch, Sofita’s body remembered the dance.
She’d shared him with Ergal Jakix many times before the hizak’s death, and memories of him penetrating her with passionate intensity fueled Sofita’s desire. She rolled him onto his back and moved over him with purpose. She demanded he put himself inside her, and with a smile, he did as she asked.
Intently, she watched his member enter her flesh, and the sight of it moving in and out brought Sofita unbridled ecstasy. She wanted nothing more than to prolong their tryst, yet one-on-one encounters never allowed her the luxury.
It wasn’t long before the biting cold seized her insides. She groaned softly as her guzshlix contracted and sucked him in, lifting his backside off the couch. For a satisfying moment, their flesh fused before the pleasurable chill gave way to unbearable heat.
Her body released him, and free to pleasure himself, he manipulated his slick flesh with the skill only a male could master.
Arching his back, he cried out, his legs quaking as the bulging flesh in his hand trembled. Like oil seeping through silk, juice bled from every pore of it; a claspers climactic collapse never lost its allure.
“I have missed you, Kinbalru,” she panted, lying spent beside him.
Kin whispered, “You missed it, not me.”
“Tell me again,” she said. “What color is your hide?”
“I’m dark blue, with black stripes.”
“You have streaks, not stripes.”
Kin laughed. “What’s the difference, hizzah?”
“Stripes are solid,” she said, grinning. “Streaks are not,”
His fingers found her hairline. “You don’t have streaks or stripes.”
“This is a BCA violation, Komad.”
Sofita sat up, unnerved by the Shell’s voice in her head.
“Did you ever purchase a tub?” she asked quickly.
“No, and I never will,” he said. “I do not stew in my own filth.”
“Do you have any idea what happens to me in here when you ride?”
Sofita cleared her mind, but this made the Shell louder.
“You told me visiting Jal was a dangerous enterprise,” said the Shell. “Yet here we are, burning blue with a male you should’ve collected years ago.”
Kin rolled toward her when she rose from the couch.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I touched you just then.”
Sofita stared at his handsome face, his hide moist with sweat.
“You’re not one to be touched,” he said. “Unless it’s sexual.”
“He’s got your number,” cracked the Shell.
“I rose because I need to bathe,” she lied.
Kin sighed, “You got up because you felt something.”
“You’re losing this game, ’Fita.”
Closing the door behind her, Sofita stood in the washroom.
“You are not Fusada,” she said. “Get out of my head.”
Kin called out, “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” she called back.
This third-floor washroom was tiny, but its mirror possesed excellent lighting. Four thick towels sat neatly within a waist-high shelving cube, and set atop was a round basin filled with churning water.
Kin spoke on the other side of the door.
“I’m going downstairs, ‘Fita.”
“I’ll join you in a moment,” she said back.
A shower lined with smooth polar stone beckoned, its warm water falling from a wide-angle spout above her. Sofita stood beneath its flow before raising the heat. She noticed her finger left a mark on the flat panel controls through the steam. One of the tiny graphics upon it displayed a gapirx icon; pushing it would’ve brought a toilet up from the floor.
Sofita mused, “Stewing in his own juice is distasteful,”
“But he’s got no problem leaking in the shower.”
She grabbed a koxtax from the row of hooks above her and noticed a faint residue on its surface.
“That’s just cleaner build-up, ‘Fita.”
Nevertheless, she put it back.
“I may be,” she mumbled. “But you’re still not Fusada.”
Out of the shower, she scanned the room for a hide-drying unit. Finding none, she grabbed a towel. Ziw Balru remained a proponent of the simple life, and the marix took pride in her decision to refrain from modern amenities.
“Don’t judge Balru,” the Shell scolded. “That simple life is how your male survived Retred.”
This was an undeniable conclusion.
When officials had arrived to collect the bodies of Ziw’s suicided elders, Kin, fearing he was about to be caught, came down the stairs and greeted the Term Sabo agents questioning Ziw. Claiming himself the housekeeper, Kin asked Ziw for permission to leave.
Unfortunately, one of the officers knew a male when she saw one.
“It was Gax,” said the Shell. “She truly believed Ziw had no idea.”
“How do you know this?”
“I spoke with Gax all the time,” the Shell replied.
Sofita sighed in frustration.
Ziw had played into Kin’s story after Komad Gax seized hold of him. She assured the divisional agent that she’d known the bizak since they were donats; she couldn’t possibly be a male. Ziw watched as Gax forcibly stripped Kin down to prove her point, but the hardest thing was denying their relation; housed since birth, Kin lacked a donational registration card and held no ties to Clan Balru.
“Shit. That’s why you left Marixi Administration,” the Shell accused. “You saw the name Balru on the apprehension manifest. You thought he was related to Bilo, didn’t you?”
Sofita cleared her mind of Bilo Balru, hoping this would silence the Shell.
Kin had been in custody two months before her arrival. At the mercy of a Ninth Gen hizak, he’d been hanging by his feet, bound, and gagged, when they first met. The elder hizak wished to determine how much stimulation a male needed to achieve burxol while suspended upside down.
Sofita suggested that such an experiment would yield no beneficial results and got haughtily dismissed. Unable to curb her aggression, she’d grasped the elder’s high-styled hair and slammed her head into the desk. No words came from a dazed Kin as Sofita walked him back to his room, but she’d sensed his relief.
Shortly afterward, the facility supervisor, Doctor Riba Wygz, had confronted her.
An arrogant Ninth with a catalog of essential friends, Wygz couldn’t discipline Sofita because Ryo Uym still favored her. Though Sofita abandoned Marixi Administration, the elder Uym remained her social sponsor.
“Old Ryo giveth and old Ryo taketh away,” the Shell reminded.
Sofita had said those very words to Fusada before the marix underwent surgery to implant the Shell.
“You’re pulling things from my memory,” she accused.
“Whatever makes you feel better, Komad.”
Back in the room, she spotted a casti-frame on Kin’s bureau. She eyed the images while dressing, the first taken of young Ziw in uniform beside her kerma outside the Balrupaxo.
Kos Balru had been a Ninth Gen bizak with little interest in running a deli; she maintained it so her bond partners could socialize with the hizaki patrons. One of them, a zaxir, had died bearing Kin.
Another image materialized of a thick-backed hizak named Ruta Sok.
Ruta and Kos proved far enough apart genetically that Oligax allowed their patches to be combined. A stylish foodaxi processing manager, Ruta, stood beside the pregnant zaxir bond of Kos. Inside that belly was Ziw, the marixidoe who’d realign the splintered bloodline of Balrusok.
First came Ziw, and then a subak named Bulaz. After the Suicides, Ziw became a prominent member of Utama’s civic community, while Bulaz, raised by Ruta, became one of its wealthiest.
A freeze of Kin then appeared.
A bizak male hiding in the hide, she stood proudly beside her sibling Ziw, holding up a plaque signifying a Mynu School of Restaurant Management certification. He’d been earned a seat in the prestigious organization after Ergal Jakix forged a degree from the Pikalit School of Culinary Arts.
Ziw had allowed it, and Sofita was furious; hiding in the hide was dangerous enough without attending classes alongside dozens of 1oth Gen bizaki, none of whom would remember her from caste-training.
By then, she’d held little sway in Kin’s life.
After liberating him from Retred, Sofita had taken a reward from Ziw in the form of her Clan’s records. There were hundreds of Clan Balru documents never before seen by scholars, and from these, she built the groundwork that would become Balrusok’s biography.
Ziw’s willingness to allow Kin everything he asked for, no matter how unreasonable, stemmed purely from her guilt over his apprehension. As for the hizak, Ergal, she’d fallen deeply in love with him.
A fellow male-admirer, Ergal, had helped Sofita smuggle Kin get out of the facility during that final collection of males. Once free, she’d driven them to a conduit-coil testing shack and stayed with Kin while Sofita returned to Utama to inform Ziw of the situation. Kin soon resurfaced as a new citizen, and eager to run his own eatery, Ergal upgraded the Balrupaxo.
The next freeze showed Kin clad in a kitchen uniform and sitting on the marble stairs out back of the deli. On his lap was an ornery marixidoe, with a smile so much like Fusada’s that it made the scar parallel to her gash, tighten.
“After Ryo shut you out, you just disappeared,” the Shell whispered. “You never told me why, no matter how much I wanted to know that day in the delivery room.”
Sofita’s rage heightened.
“Speak to me again as if you’re my sibling, and I will remove these spheres,” she said through her teeth. “Do you understand?”
When the Shell didn’t reply, her mind caught on those days after her plan to free Orestes had backfired.
Ryo had pressed most hizaki into ostracizing Sofita, yet Ixo Gizul bucked the edict and published her writings. Ergal went further by insisting Sofita cohabitate at the Balrudos with her and Kin.
Months later, Kin expressed a desire for a donation, and Ergal considered finding a way to patch up with him until Ziw talked her out of it. When Sofita offered herself as a birther, Ziw had been beside herself with anger.
Boots in hand, she descended the stairs and drifted into the scent of something delicious. The kitchen was a small Second-Gen style room, where nothing owned a pointed corner, and everything lived behind a glossy panel. Given its size, the space appeared highly organized, despite the gnarled herbs hanging from the ceiling over the cooktop.
Kin moved around the main island in a traditional male robe. Long in the arms and legs, it flapped right when he shifted left, very much like the hairtail dangling down the middle of his back. Catching her stare, he aimed his thumb at the darkened windows.
“My shades are on,” he assured.
Sofita dropped her boots beside the chair and sat at the bar.
“I reheated some pikat-bean soup.” Kin plunked down beside her with a steaming bowl. “It’s Ziw’s favorite.”
Modest hunks of skinned patotok floated within strings of pulled zatolixa and long broth-soaked pikat beans. Without deciphering the soup’s color, Sofita imagined its appeal relied heavily on taste.
“Ziw came to see me, back in Yubol,” she said, splitting a softened patotok in half with her spoon.
Kin eyed her. “I heard you weren’t very receptive,”
“I was asked to stay away, and I did,” The salty zatolixa melted in her mouth. “Did Ziw tell you why she visited me?”
“Whatever it was, she’s moved on,” he said between bites. “Ziw’s caught up with some Pure Gen subbie who says someone’s trying to kill her,”
The spheres within her trembled.
“Is someone trying to kill her?”
“Who knows?” he shrugged. “Subaki manufacture drama,”
“Is she the donation of a friend?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” he said. “Ziw never brings work home.”
Sofita returned to her soup.
“Oh,” he said. “Her donation got in touch with her last year,”
“Was it a pleasant sit-down?”
Kin shrugged. “She seemed more interested in the Balru name than in Ziw,”
“Now that Clan Balru and Line Sok are one,” said Sofita. “The name carries value,”
“Not our name,” he said, head shaking. “Bulaz made it very clear that Line Sok and our Clan are financially separate.”
Sofita stared at him.
“Ziw agreed to her terms,” he said softly. “Less attention on me,”
“I thought they shared an amicable relationship,”
“Bulaz is a freak,” Kin curled his lip. “She likes Ziw a bit too much if you catch my meaning.”
“You think Ziw bounced that subbie?”
Sofita ignored the Shell’s crude observation.
“Does the little one come back?”
“She’s no longer little,” Kin said.
“Is she a guardia, like Ziw?”
“Don’t act like you never saw her in Orta.” Kin elbowed her. “Ziw told me what happened when she was twelve.”
“I haven’t seen Styba since her Final,” she said.
“I know. I saw you there,” Kin said. “I didn’t come over because there was so much going on with that other bruiser, waking up like that,”
Sofita and the Shell remained silent.
“She used to come home after every hibernation,” he continued. “But since her promotion last month—”
“-She made Dokomad?”
“Yeah, but she’s TermSabo,” Kin said, brow bent.
“Advancement is good for her,” said Sofita.
“Advancement means she killed someone,”
“When she makes Promad—”
“-I don’t even want to think about it—”
“-When she makes Promad,” Sofita spoke over him before setting down her spoon. “She can transfer to any Division she wants.”
“I lost one love to the SOD,” he said, eyes on hers. “I don’t want to lose another,”
“I’ve apologized for my choices, Kin.”
“We’re not talking about what could have been between us,” he declared, hand up like a halt-sign. “That whale has floated to the surface and been taken by the tide.”
Sofita pulled her hair back and fastened it tight within her barrette as Kin brought the bowl to his lips and loudly emptied it.
“You saved my life,” he said when finished. “I owed you, and you repaid the favor.”
Sofita sighed. “Ziw told you what I said,”
“Of course,” Kin said, leaning over and kissing her. She tasted the soup on his lips and entertained explaining that her harsh words were merely an attempt to be rid of Ziw. “You know she loves serving you up in a bad light.”
Sofita stretched her legs under the table. “Did you vote today?”
“I sure did,” he said, tucking his bowl into the sink that rose out of the island when tapped. “Velto’s going to win, even if Tee Banto’s not fighting fair,”
“Has the media been unsavory?” she asked.
“That Cloister hearing got leaked to the press,”
“Of course, it did,” said the Shell.
“They don’t publicize Special Sessions,”
“This one got aired,” Kin said. Rising from his chair, he walked to the backdoor and stood there. “Why did you do it?”
“Do what?” she asked.
“You entered your gen-code into the system,” he accused without facing her. “Testimony said that this was how Velto got hold of Sky Sister.”
When she didn’t respond, Kin turned to face her. “Why would you do that knowing it would expose you to the Committee?”
“Kin,” she said. “They’re aware of my being a genetic heir,”
“You’ve always turned away from it, though,”
“Ilo’s dead because of me,” she said. “I owed rod’ntil,”
He huffed. “Velto asked for that, years ago, when you killed Zixas.”
“He’s baiting you,” the Shell whispered. “Let it pass.”
“I remember, Kin, I was there,” she snapped.
“You told me that joining Orta had nothing to do with bringing the Primary down,” he said, his voice wavering. “Now, all these pundits are talking about how your role as our incoming Primary is official with you being an active officer. Whatever that means.”
A dull pain struck her sinuses.
“His anger is intense,” the Shell warned.
“Please tell me you’re not ascending, ‘Fita.”
Sofita took a breath. “Things have changed, Kin,”
“No,” he said, voice rising. “You said we’d be safe because those gurxholes across the street think you don’t care about the Primaryship,”
Sofita winced as the pain intensified.
“You’re going to take on Fusa, aren’t you?” he demanded.
Sofita spoke through the migraine. “Don’t project your anger at me,”
“Or what?” Kin cried, then raked his fingers through his long black hair. “Doesn’t that thing in your body protect you from my emotional outbursts?”
Sofita cradled her head as the Shell did just that.
Kin collided with the door and then fell to his knees, retching.
She struggled to stop the Shell’s mental assault, imagining a vast black sea, and on its snowy shore stood the Shell formed into Fusada. Suddenly, a tidal wave of darkness loomed, and as the Shell screamed Sofita’s name, the wave crashed down, leaving nothing but a washed-out space in the white.
The pain in her head subsided as Kin struggled to his feet.
“I don’t know what I expected you to say,” he sobbed.
Sofita glanced up at his flushed face. “Kin, please,”
“I thought when I brought it up, you would say to me that you’d never be dumb enough to risk your life and ours.” He swallowed hard. “Things have changed is not what I wanted to hear,”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” she said, reaching for him.
Kin averted her touch. “Tell that shit to Orestes Uym,”
She stood, and when he fearfully retreated, she felt sick.
“I’d never hurt you,” she assured.
“You say that so convincingly.” His emotions continued ruling the space between them, filling her with an overwhelming sadness. “I wish you hadn’t come here today.”
“Kin, please,” she said.
Kin stepped to her unworn boots and kicked them.
“If ascension is your goal, you stay out of our lives.”
Sofita spent the afternoon on the surface, racing over the tundra while bickering with the Shell. Her threat to remove the spheres led to inane haranguing that oddly made her miss for her twin.
A promised trip to ISO silenced the Shell, but as Sofita walked toward Orta’s west entry, the sentient energy realized today wasn’t the day they’d be visiting. That led to another argument about Sofita never showing up when Fusada arranged meetings.
After several silent moments in the bullish surface winds, the Shell spoke.
“We’ve got mission sign, Komad.”
Sofita tapped the holographic interface over her arm.
“There’s nothing in my notifications,” she said as an incoming message appeared.
“North American Union.”
“What’s the Femitokon Division’s business there?”
The spheres trembled within her. “Caro Cristi—”
“-Has been contained and living as an helovx for over ten years.”
Suddenly, a social-services record flashed in her eyes.
Written in Nauist English, it concerned a four-year-old boy taken in by Appalachia Island authorities after being found with his dead mother and other children adrift on a boat in the Atlantic.
“Jal will know about any hybrids he sired,” said the Shell.
Sofita shook her head. “Not today.”
“I’m not fucking around, ‘Fita.” Suddenly, memories of Fusada telling the male hizak about her mission to acquire the wayward elder flashed in her brain.
“How could she have been so reckless?” Sofita said.
“Utilizing a caste-off to catch a fugitive male,” argued the Shell, “is nowhere near as reckless as getting implanted when you're not a zaxir.”
Sofita ignored the jab, certain now that the Shell's need to connect with the male in ISO proved part of a perceived unfinished mission.
“Tell yourself whatever you want, ‘Fita,”
“First, we return to our paxicol,” she said. “I cannot question Jal about Caro without insulting him, and for that, I must reward him.”
“Why are hizzah’s so complicated?”
Sofita hissed in frustration.
“After this mission,” she promised. “Our time in the same body ends.”
“Agreed,” said the Shell, too quickly. “This Nauist is the last documented hybrid, and unless you agree to hunt hiders, this will be your final mission with the Femitokon Division.”
Axyrn Custodial had wasted no time replacing their deceased sentry in Vosk ISO. The newly assigned, an Eleventh Gen, was a former surface walker adept at ignoring the cloaked Komad passing her station.
“What’s his name?”
Sofita glanced at him over the package by her boots.
“Whose name?” she asked.
“The male you engaged before visiting me today?”
“Your imagination,” she signed. “Is it your only entertainment?”
“The aroma of a clasper is undeniable.” A smile spread across his worn face, the lines down his cheeks whispering of abuses that Sofita knew all too well. “You didn’t terminate this male today, did you?”
“No, Jal,” she replied. “He lives.”
“Hiding in the hide,” he said. “I suppose you’ve hunted down your share of hiders?”
“I do not hunt males,” she reminded.
Jal turned toward her voice. “Where were you, Doctor, when CM Dag demanded the termination of every male in the Prime Lab’s retraining program?”
“That day?” she said. “Employed at a Retraining Center, in Toxis.”
“I didn’t want to believe Fusada’s tale of your transition,” he said, head bowed. “It upset her greatly, but who was she to judge?”
“I’m here as a courtesy from one hizak to another, Jal,” she said. “Please refrain from mentioning Fusada in our conversations.”
Air escaped his nose. “How did you treat your victims?”
She lifted her back from the wall. “Victims?”
“I’ll stop mentioning Fusada,” he said. “If you stop pretending my gender was ever anything other than victimized.”
Sofita nodded. “I resigned my position when scheduling terminations began,”
“You liberated one,” he said.
“The hiding Utamaxi,” she said, “As you’ve surmised already by his smell.”
Jal smiled, his long hair tied tastefully to one side.
“He’s so damned ugly that he’s beautiful,” the Shell thought.
Sofita closed her eyes, having taken such a backhanded compliment herself.
“Tell him his hair looks nice,” the Shell said.
Sofita remained silent.
“Come on, ‘Fita,” the Shell pressed. “You hizzahs love being told you look nice.”
“You delight me, Doctor,” he said. “Did you refrain from washing for my benefit?”
“I showered, but I didn’t scrape,” she grinned. “Do they allow you a koxtax?”
“I’m cleaned with radiated light.” Jal lifted his scarred eyes. “Last time you were here, we spoke on the resurgence of Jungwanian commercial science. What will we speak of today?”
She admired his interest through the crackling plasma curtain.
“I want to talk about Carocristi,”
Jal cocked his head. “Is he still breathing?”
“You are cognizant of his continued existence,”
“I know nothing of him other than what I used to,”
“From experience,” she said. “Or from Komadon Kul’s files?”
Jal frowned. “Files?”
“Caro Cristi poisoned his hizak partner in their Antarctica City residence before attempting flight by hiding in the hide,” she said. “He might’ve evaded capture had he avoided the helovx quarter.”
Jal gave no sign that he hadn’t heard the story before.
“Femitokon Division records note that at the time of his escape, he’d shared a cell with two other males scheduled for termination,” said Sofita.
Jal leaned towards her voice.
“Komadon Kul’s issue with that version of events is that if Cristi fled while being transported to Termination Processing, there should’ve been physical evidence left in the tunnel leading to the Cavern of Death.”
Jal nodded. “That’s why Foos—Komadon Kul, reopened the case,”
“Weekly custody logs registered five males, and all five vanished from their holding cells following a visit from a SOD agent named Tuxtol.”
“Foo—Komadon Kul knew Tol as a peer of the Primary’s,” he struggled with his words before collecting himself. “She traced the Primary’s travel routes that week and compared them to Tol’s transport logs.”
Sofita swallowed. “Hours after Tol visited Termination Processing, her path intersected with Fusa’s at a cabin on the Ortosk Bay.”
“Komadon Kul surmised that Cristi freed himself at the cabin and swam the canal for the sea,” he said.
“Five males left those cells, but only three appeared between the poles.” Sofita rose from the floor and stood just outside the plasma curtain. “The cabin belonged to Ryo Uym, and if Ryo was present, then the violence in that cabin played out methodically.”
Jal hugged his legs. “CM Uym wasn’t there.”
“Unbridled violence, then,” Sofita ruminated. “Cristi and the two remaining males on deck to be brutalized listened to Fusa raping their brothers in the next room. They acquired the courage to free themselves. Maybe they had help.”
“Quite a dramatic theory,” said Jal.
Sofita passed through the crackling plasma unharmed.
“Let’s jump forward.” Her sudden closeness startled him. “You were there when the Femitokon’s found Caro and those two males between the poles.”
Jal laughed. “That’s a leap,”
“There was a witness,” she said. “A raving helovx. She’s since returned to the Californias, but her story rang true now that I’ve met you.”
Jal appeared deep in thought.
“You ingratiated yourself to Caro,” she continued. “You knew everything about him. It was easy for you, wasn’t it?”
“You knew everything,” she added. “Because Komadon Kul had coached you,”
“After conquering the Shell,” Jal confessed. “She wanted me to seek out and infiltrate.”
“She wanted to know how he escaped Ramaxia?”
“She had a theory, but she wished to determine what he looked like,” Jal said. “Komadon Kul believed he’d changed his appearance,”
“I want to know about your last days with Caro Cristi.”
“There’s nothing to tell,”
“That’s an untruth, Jal.”
“There’s nothing to tell—”
“Begin with your initial escape from Ramaxia,” she pressed.
After several moments of listening to her pace around him, he relented.
“I escaped from my guard by jumping into the Vosk’tulak,”
“How did you survive that?”
“I held my breath,” he revealed. “It was by no means an easy task. I nearly died.”
“You got to shore before womb dream?”
“Barely,” he shuddered. “I slept on the rocks for days before fleeing through the caverns. I slept again before climbing to the surface,”
“Along the coast, you entered the sea?”
“My goal had been to swim for Brasilia.” Jal scowled then. “Those damned statues.”
“Did you wake, face-up in the sea?”
Jal nodded. “A pod of whales took pity on me and shepherded me for days before leaving me in sight of land.” He hugged his legs again. “I washed up on the Kalahari Coast,”
“Is this where Caro found you?”
“Not Caro.” Jal shook his head, his face sour. “Polvax brought me to the tanker where he, Caro, and Aurix lived. They’d convinced a gaggle of humans that they were angels of God.”
“How many helovx?”
“Over sixty,” he said, facing her voice. “Aurix disliked me from the start, but that bizzy had lost Caro’s affections before my arrival.”
“Aurix was designated subak,” Sofita said, recalling the file.
“Aurix could make a weapon from a long pipe, a rubber band, and broken seashells.” Jal huffed a laugh. “It took him a few tries, but he finally got that thing to unload in some man’s face.”
“Why would he attack the men?”
“He felt that this man deserved it,” he explained. “He’d come below decks and found Polvax and Aurix fellating each other. Religious humans display hatred for any form of sexual expression that doesn’t create children.”
“Did Caro punish Aurix for hurting this man?”
Jal frowned. “Caro enacting punishment?”
“He used you to punish Aurix,” said Sofita.
“We Tenth can drive a brain’s electrical current. Forcing it to cluster in a specific area causes pain.” Jal lowered his head as if ashamed. “Most times, it’s unintentional, but when we concentrate, it takes a toll.”
“Talk to me about Ryx Kul?” she asked.
The last bizak of House Kul, and one of the few Seventh Gen who hadn’t committed suicide, Ryx kept silent during Fusa’s reign of terror, and for that, she’d earned an isolated surface cabin.
“Komadon Kul pulled Ryx Kul’s credit-disbursement history and discovered she’d been missing since Cristi’s escape.” Jal lifted his head, a new thought to speak. “Polvax kept a corpse on our boat. I glimpsed it once walking past his room.”
“Polvax, the subak?”
“Strange that one.” His scarred mouth twisted. “He kept a mummified body in his room. The hide around its gash, torn and rotting.”
Sofita knelt beside him. “You think Ryx gave birth?”
“I reiterate, I never witnessed the elder,” Jal said. “Komadon Kul shared her theories, and I married those theories to what I heard firsthand.”
“What did you hear?”
“Caro said that Aurix had developed a strong desire for their caretaker,” he answered. “Polvax designated herself the bizak’s protector and thus impeded any sexual overtures from Aurix.”
“Ryx wasn’t their prisoner?”
“Aurix had insisted they seize her as a hostage.” Jal shifted uncomfortably. “Caro relayed that Aurix raped the bizak, but he said no more after this utterance.”
“Caro disliked such ugliness?”
Jal nodded. “He forbid sexual assault of any kind or talk of it,”
“How did the subject of Ryx transpire?”
Jal raised his clouded eyes to the ceiling.
“Polvax displayed an unrelenting sadness,”
“What triggered these moods?” she asked.
“Women birthing babies,” he replied.
Sofita wondered about their captive bizak.
“Do you think Ryx gave birth?”
“I never saw it, but Polvix seemed to mourn it,” Jal said. “I couldn’t inquire because after Caro made my position clear, Polvax ceased being friendly.”
“You served as his weapon?”
“Had I anticipated being used in such a manner,” he laughed softly. “I would have fled sooner,”
Sofita said, “How did your neurological attacks affect the helovx?”
“Most grew depressed. Some slept for days,” Jal answered. “One jumped from the ship with a metal weight around his ankles.”
“Did the women turn to Caro for guidance?”
“He’s a zaxir,” he grinned. “He fixed everything with intercourse,”
“Did you and Caro-?”
“—Caro tried, but I wasn’t interested.” Jal lifted his chin, defiant. “I wished only to continue my search for Fusada and Bo,”
Jal nodded. “I learned Fusada had bonded with Bo-”
“—Who told of a bond?”
“Tib Jyr,” he said. “She lied, didn’t she?”
Sofita folded her arms. “Is that why you killed her?”
“She attempted to murder me,” Jal snapped.
“Why did you kill Aurix?”
“He did the—” he started. “Who said I killed Aurix?”
“When the Femitokon’s collected Aurix,” she said. “The autopsy on his brain found it scorched,”
“My last days with Caro weren’t pleasant.” Jal inched closer to one of the floor canals. “Why do you need to know these things?”
“Because I want to know,”
“I don’t want to tell you,”
“You will tell me,” she said.
“Or what?” he demanded. “There’s nothing left to take from me,”
“I can take your hands and your tongue,” she promised.
“Damn you, ‘Fita.”
Sadness masked Jal’s face, and it made her body throb.
“It was a mistake to trust you,” he mumbled.
“You’re the not first citizen to say that to me,”
“I shall tell you all, Komad Kul,” he said. “Then I demand you never return.”
“Don’t you make that promise,” the Shell warned.
Sofita stood over him, struggling not to touch his hair.
“The night we were apprehended,” he hesitated, blinded eyes closed. “Aurix physically attacked me,”
“Other caste-offs had beaten you in Orta,” she said quickly. “What about your confrontation with Aurix caused escalation?”
“I had changed since Orta,” he said.
“Why made Aurix assault you?”
Jal gnashed his teeth. “There’s nothing more obscene than a hybrid girl,”
“How many daughters did Caro sire?” the Shell wondered.
“He loved his sons,” said Jal. “He even loved the free-born,”
“A full-blooded donation?” she asked.
“I never saw it,” he whispered. “He’d left with one of Caro’s women.”
“This woman,” she said. “Did she mother a hybrid?”
“Polvax, the good little subbie, cared for each of Caro’s progeny.” Jal didn’t answer her inquiry. “The girls ignited my fears. The last thing a human girl needs is Femarctic DNA.”
“What did you do, Jal?”
“At the time, I thought my intentions pure.”
“How many did you kill?”
“I smothered over a dozen before Polvax caught me.”
Sofita retreated to the door as the Shell’s sorrow drenched her senses.
“Human babies, their heads are so fragile.” He crooked his arms as if cradling an infant and then pulled them to his chest. “I held them tight until their tiny bones broke in my embrace.”
“Stop this, ‘Fita.”
“There’s crying at first, oh yes,” he whispered, lost in the memory. “Pushing that soft spot on their head until your fingers leave dents. That always stops the crying.”
Sofita swallowed. “Did Polvax witness this?”
“He ran to Aurix.” A tear fell down Jal’s cheek. “The distraught look on Caro’s face as he begged me to tell him why.”
Suddenly, the male’s anger became palpable.
“When Aurix struck me without provocation, I focused all my energy on burning a hole into the back of his brain. His skinny legs gave out, and when he fell at my feet, I picked a pipe up from the floor and—”
“You bludgeoned Aurix?”
“Polvax started screaming.” Jal’s voice trembled. “Caro tried silencing him. He didn’t want the humans seeing us in turmoil, but it was too late. They’d found us, and when they saw Aurix’s lifeless body at my feet, Polvax told them I was a demon.”
Sofita fought the Shell as it willed her to embrace him.
“Did you suffer side-effects, Jal?”
“Attacking him damaged me, yes,” he said. “I’ve yet to regain full control of my ability.”
“Jal, I’m sorry,”
Jal turned to her, his eyes wide. “Fusada?”
Sofita retreated to the falls by the door.
“Would you have killed your donation?” the Shell demanded through her.
“Why would you ask me that?” he cried, his rage bringing the pain. “You ask me this knowing that Styba’s dead.”
The Shell’s resonance vanished.
“Your games bore me, Doctor Kul,” he declared.
“You created another donation,” she whispered, then stepped to him. “I want to know about this other donation,”
“There’s only one,” he yelled.
Sofita snatched hold of his hair, eliciting a gasp when she pulled him from the water’s edge. The destructive waves battering her brain eroded as he calmed.
“She joined our patches,” he said. “Even though it sickened me, I played along when she joyfully nagged me to name it. I named her after my dead birther, Styba.”
“This donation?” she said, releasing him. “It’s dead?”
Jal aimed his scarred eyes in her direction.
“Just like his birther, Ilo Cux,” he seethed.
Questions plagued Sofita, but his knowledge of recent events bothered her.
“My new custodian,” he murmured as if reading her thoughts. “She plays her Filmark too loud.”
Sofita recalled the day Kin revealed what she’d named their marixidoe. He’d been distant that day, unwilling to look her in the eyes. He focused on the newborn so much that she’d felt unwanted and excused herself.
“Your donations name is Tavo,” she said, venturing to the door.
“Tavo?” he asked, voice cracking.
“She’s a subak and very much alive.”Once outside the cell, she kicked the wrapped package through the plasma curtain. “Fusada left this in our paxicol the day she died.”
Jal’s hands roamed the floor until they found it. Tearing apart the paper, he brought the undershirt to his nose. Inhaling deep, he sobbed into it.