Acting as an advisor to diplomat Chiamaka, Atienna finds herself storm-locked in a cave alongside advisors and diplomats from Aquarius and Pisces. The murder of Piscese advisor Kalama puts the three diplomatic parties at odds with each other. And the situation escalates further when a peacekeeper named Mladen falls into their cave from Ophiuchus through a portal created by an ELPIS Specialist. Mladen comes in with knowledge of the word ‘syzygy’. A word that several others in the cave—Aquarian advisor Cvetka, Aquarian secretary Yulia, odd tourist Louise, and Aquarian guard Sigurd—also seem to know.
Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius
Mladen was peculiar, to say the least.
After the Piscese diplomat Moana had completed her transmutation on Mladen, he had inquired—rather oddly with a “Where? Here?”—about their situation and location. He had brightened when they had informed him of their location and had then gaped in horror when they had informed him of their predicament.
“No fighting,” he had stated. “Bad.”
Moana had attributed his odd speech patterns and seemingly nonsensical phrases to head trauma. Although his comprehension was intact, it seemed as if there was discordance between that and his verbal skills. Moana worried about how it would affect him in the long term if not assessed properly. Unfortunately, as the storm continued to beat down outside the cavern, it seemed as if a proper medical Conductor wouldn’t be able to assist him anytime soon.
However, Atienna wondered if it truly was head trauma. Her mind kept wandering to the knife-shaped pendant—rather, the ‘resistor’—that he had arrived with embedded in his chest. Although he had given up his gloved conductor without any resistance whatsoever, he clung to the resistor tightly and kept it on a chain around his neck.
Alexei appeared to be sympathetic to the peacekeeper’s situation and had told him that he needn’t worry about professionalism. Alexei’s statement was contrary to his demeanor when Mladen had first arrived. His niceties had only come to light after he had questioned Mladen thoroughly:
Question— “Where did you come from?”
Answer— “Not here…? The gate…”
Question — “Could it be that the person who murdered Kalama also came through that gate—that, er, portal? Maybe, a Specialist?”
Question— “Could they have left when you came here?”
Question— “That Capricornian major. What happened to him? Did you do that? What’s going on in Ophiuchus?”
Answer— “Hard to say…”
Question— “You have no idea what I’m asking, do you?”
Round and round.
But the possibility that the one who had killed Kalama might have come to the cave using the same means as Mladen and the late Ersatz was a relief to many. This was because it could mean that the one who killed Kalama might not be among them and because it could also mean that the killer might not be in the cavern any longer.
Atienna herself entertained the idea but she had her reservations.
Werner had informed her that her reservations were warranted. “The knife Mladen was stabbed with is undoubtedly one of the ‘resistors’ ELPIS is searching for,” he had said to her quietly. “We don’t know what it does yet and what it’s done to him so keep your distance.”
Of course, Werner himself had issues of his own he had to worry about. Although he did not vocalize it, he was concerned about how Cadence was handling the ELPIS developments on her end. Atienna herself was worried about Cadence and Jericho as well.
Cadence was waving off everything with her usual air of nonchalance, and if Atienna was not connected to her, perhaps she might have believed the facade. Jericho, on the other hand… Atienna could not glean anything from him. There were no feelings behind his actions or words. Everything was black and white, direct and to the point, but blurred. Like the static on one of Werner’s radios.
Atienna wondered if it was during these times that Jericho needed time to be alone or if it was that he needed to be surrounded. She hovered uncertainly above the answer.
And then there was the other issue of importance Atienna had to manage alongside the appearance of Mladen—the presence of those who put meaning to the word “syzygy.” Yulia, Cvetka, Sigurd, and Louise. Atienna had narrowed down the possibilities to them being either related to ELPIS or to True Conductors, but all she could do for the time being was wonder.
And so Atienna found herself falling back into her old habit of watching matters from afar. Admittedly, it was still her favorite place to be.
In the initial days following his arrival, Mladen spent the majority of his time standing in front of the black-painted cave wall. At times he would press his hand against the thing and at other times he’d rest his forehead against its surface.
Mladen himself was rather docile. He’d shy away from Louise’s advances and would duck his head whenever Yulia would approach him—which was frequently. He was nothing like the confrontational man Atienna had recalled from Jericho’s end of things.
The Aquarians flocked to Mladen more often than the others in the cavern which was unsurprising given his Aquarian origins. Nikita Knovak initially attempted to reminisce with the man about the times they served together in the south, but Nikita’s efforts ended with him being on the receiving end of a blank stare.
“Amnesia,” Moana had suggested much earlier. “It could be related to his discordant speech patterns.”
Atienna herself wasn’t so sure.
“Well, if anything, this just goes to show you that you shouldn’t have joined Ophiuchus to begin with,” Alexei said to Mladen one day when they’d all gathered for dinner. “Ophiuchus is transient. Aquarius—the other eleven countries even—are eternal. Once the rest of Signum gets a hold of itself, Ophiuchus’ll no longer have a purpose and will disband.
Mladen blinked at him, clearly perplexed.
“I think pay better with Ophiuchus,” Nikita provided in his accented Common. “Mladen have family. Big family. Need to provide. He go where money go.”
Alexei shook his head at Mladen who had suddenly appeared distraught. “Brother, that is not the way to go at all.”
“Are you saying you should value your country above your family?” Yulia asked suddenly. She had been jotting down things again in her notebook, leaving Atienna to wonder what exactly was so important that needed to be written down.
“Of course you should value your country more,” Alexei huffed. “I’m disappointed you would think otherwise, Miss Kriska. I know you’re a bright woman. I chose you as my secretary after all. You know that we can’t be selfish.” He turned to Cvetka who had been studying Yulia intently. “Isn’t that right, Miss Akulova?”
Cvetka glanced at Atienna from across the fire before she dipped her head. “Of course.”
Mladen glanced between them nervously. “No… fight.”
“No fight,” Louise agreed from beside Atienna as she flashed the man an encouraging thumbs-up.
Although Louise seemed to know the word ‘syzygy’, Atienna had doubts about her threat-level. Louise seemed a bit too uncomplicated, too naive to be suspect. And she seemed more likely to do more harm to herself than anyone else. Or so said Atienna’s intuition.
“Crazy Aquarians,” Kabal muttered from Atienna’s right. He’d been moody recently since his time was torn between guarding Chiamaka and the Piscese guard Afu. He was very vocal about how he thought guarding Afu was a waste of time.
Chiamaka had tutted him into silence, but Atienna had caught onto how the woman had rolled her eyes at the discussion. It seemed as if the longer they stayed with one another in this cave, the more their true selves became revealed.
During the beats of events in the cavern, Atienna often found recluse in a small area of the cave that had yet to be discovered by the others. It was a smoothed-out cave pocket located several meters away from the campsite in the opposite direction of the black painted doorway. Its opening faced the campsite, so Atienna was still able to see well enough whenever she nestled into the spot to either read the books or to stare pensively at the envelope she had brought along with her on this journey.
Her secret place—a childish thought.
She’d even kept this place location hidden from Cvetka despite the woman’s friendliness and relatability. No, it was because of Cvetka’s friendliness and relatability that Atienna kept this location hidden from her. Atienna had been wondering about the woman’s intentions ever since their initial conversation. The revelation of Cvetka’s knowledge of ‘syzygy’ had just confirmed Atienna’s suspicions.
In fact, the only person Atienna had informed of this area was Sefu who would often join her in between his shifts of guarding Afu.
“How were your duties, Afu?” Atienna inquired when he slid into their hole one day.
“Afu is agitated as usual. I understand how he feels.” Sefu gestured to the cavern around them as he slid down into the pocket beside her. “I mean, he is sleeping in the same area as Kalama’s body. He’s probably had nightmares about it.”
Atienna turned over the envelope that she had been holding and smiled sympathetically. “Yes… it’s quite sad. I can’t imagine how Afu feels.”
Instead of answering, Sefu stared at her for a long while.
“What is it, Sefu?”
Flushing in the cold, Sefu cleared his throat and pointed to the envelope. “I was just wondering what that was. Forgive me if this is rude, but I’ve noticed you staring at that thing ever since we’ve left Virgo.”
Atienna flipped the envelope over, revealing the Imamu Tribe’s seal stamping it closed. She flipped it over again to reveal what was written on its back in scrawling Virgoan letters— To my beloved sister.
“Bachiru wrote that?” Sefu’s brows rose in surprise.
Before she could finish her sentence, a shadow passed overhead. A silhouette stood before the mouth of the pocket, tall and stiff. Mladen. He looked more shocked than Atienna felt.
“Please…. Let stay.” Mladen pressed his hands together pleadingly as he looked between them. “Yulia. Scary. Keep following.” He shook his head. “Hide.”
Although Atienna knew this herself, she couldn’t help but feel the itch in her hands and the itch in her mind. She couldn’t stay in place any longer. A question burned. A gaze couldn’t be averted. A choice had to be made. And if it was the incorrect choice then…
Atienna placed a hand on Sefu’s arm to keep him at bay and offered Mladen a nod.
“Appreciation,” Mladen said with a sigh of relief as he sank down in between them.
It had already been a tight fit with just herself and Sefu in the pocket. Now with Mladen added it was almost impossible to move.
A stretch of silence passed between them. And after glancing between Sefu and her nervously, Mladen awkwardly focused his gaze on a point beyond the entrance of the pocket. More silence.
“So, Mladen…” Atienna drew slowly. She paused when he didn’t turn to face her. After a bit of hesitation, she tapped his shoulder and asked, “Is it all right if I call you Mladen?”
Mladen whipped around and stared, before his eyes sparkled and he made an ‘X’ with his arms while shaking his head. Although Sefu arched a brow at this, Atienna smiled politely.
“What should I call you then?” She held out the book that she had brought with her and handed it to him. It was a Virgoan fairytale written in Common. “Here, if you are having trouble, you can just show me.”
Mladen flipped through the book with excitement that fell flat as some sort of realization dawned on him. He gently handed the book back to her and shook his head. “Not here. Characters. For name.” He paused, frowning, before he took the book back, flipped through it, and pointed to a printed letter ‘p’ on the fifty-sixth page. “Closest.”
“P?” Atienna studied the letter for a moment before tapping her chin in thought. Interesting. “Is that referring to a nickname? Or a title?”
Mladen—P, rather—shook his head. He opened his mouth and then closed it before his brows furrowed and he ruffled his hair in frustration.
Atienna placed a hand on his shoulder. “I-It is alright, P. Words aren’t always a necessary component in conversation.”
P nodded slowly.
“Well, I’m Atienna, P,” Atienna said. She inclined her head in Sefu’s direction. “And this is Sefu. It’s very nice to be able to talk like this.”
P studied her hesitantly before nodding once again, almost sheepishly. “Where… from?”
“Virgo.” She smiled a bit despite the sudden pang of homesickness that wracked her chest. Her mind started drifting to the letter in her hand.
P gestured to himself. “Ophiuchus.”
Smiling gently, Atienna pointed to the white band that still glowed on his arm. “I sort of figured that was the case. If it weren’t, then that would be troubling, wouldn’t it?”
P followed her gesture to the armband, and he began to pick at it absentmindedly. “Different. My Ophiuchus. Different.”
“Different?” Atienna tried cautiously. “How so?”
P frowned and shook his head. “Explain… can’t.”
A grateful looked passed P’s face. Atienna assumed that he was glad to have some sort of reprieve from being bludgeoned with question after question since his awakening. And so, a lapse of silence passed between them. Sefu appeared to be a bit disgruntled by the other man’s intrusion but kept his complaints quiet.
After some time had passed, P gestured to her book. “Like? Read?”
Atienna chuckled. “Oh, I love it. I could do it all day. That and gardening. It’s peaceful, don’t you think?”
P considered this and nodded.
“What do you like to do?”
P’s brows furrowed in thought before he held up his two index fingers and made a looping motion with both of them. “… make things. Yarn.”
Atienna chuckled. “I see. That sounds like a fun hobby. Did you do that often when you were back in Aquarius?”
P frowned in confusion again before he shook his head once. He then gestured to her shoes. “Like… style?”
Atienna wiggled her toes. “Hm… it’s a bit suffocating, although that’s only my own opinion.” She pointed to his uniform. “How about you?”
They continued back and forth like that for half an hour. Sefu had dozed off some time halfway into the conversation, however. But Atienna didn’t blame him. Rather, she was glad that he was able to get some rest between keeping watch over Afu and over herself. And she was glad he was no longer awake to hear where she was going to take this conversation next.
“… you said you were from Ophiuchus,” Atienna spoke quietly. “So you remember everything that happened before you fell out of that…” She had to choose the words carefully. “… light?”
P stared at her before giving a hesitant nod. “Remember…? Yes. Everything… maybe.” He paused and amended, “Most everything. But not…” He shook his head. “No. Don’t know. Don’t understand…” He squinted out of the pocket’s opening. “Everyone. Unhappy. World history: don’t know. Signum, Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo: know. Ophiuchus, become peacekeepers: don’t know.”
Atienna parsed through the words he had supplied her with and then tried, “Do you… not know Signum’s history? Or are you talking about recent events? Like the border conflict or…?”
She placed a curious hand on her cheek as she tried to dissect what exactly he meant.
Was this amnesia then? P seemed to be implying that he remembered everything from his perspective. So perhaps instead of his episodic memory being afflicted, it was his semantic memory? That was an oddly unusual form of memory loss, but it did account for his confusion at the word ‘Specialist’ and at Ophiuchus’s peacekeeping purpose. Then again, rather than acting as if he didn’t recall these things, P was stating that he ‘did not know’ instead. Peculiar, but perhaps…
Atienna startled as an idea came to her.
Yes, it was farfetched, but…
“Don’t know history,” P affirmed before startling Atienna by reaching out to grasp her hand. “Tell…?” Faltering, he whispered, “Please? Confused, yes. Sorry if… strange.”
“Strangeness is all up to perspective, don’t you think?” Atienna gently pulled her hand away and averted her eyes out of habit. “Well, there is quite a lot of history to cover. I’m not sure where you’d like to start.” She smiled softly, a bit morosely. “It wouldn’t do so good to start with a war, would it—”
P paled considerably. “… war?”
Atienna regarded him before she dipped her head. “Yes… the Reservoir War. It `started thirty years ago when the countries of Signum began to fight over the vitae reservoirs. It ended when the twelve countries banded together to subdue the original country of Ophiuchus. It was after Ophiuchus was… quelled… that the current peacekeeping state organization formed in its place. What we call Ophiuchians today are simply peacekeepers transferred in from one of the twelve countries.”
Instead of responding, P stared wordlessly out of the pocket’s entrance. Atienna waited patiently, curiously, hesitantly.
“Failed,” he finally whispered. P’s hand drifted to his neck, and he pulled out a familiar-looking, knife-shaped pendant out from his shirt.
“No use. Resistor, broken,” he informed her. “No return. No more. End. Die, permanent!” His last words ended with an angry shout that almost stirred Sefu from his sleep. He ducked his head ashamedly afterwards, tucked the pendant back into his shirt, and mumbled, “Sorry…”
“It’s alright,” Atienna said, though she had reflexively curled her hands into fists. “Sefu is quite a heavy sleeper.” After a pause, she asked, “Are you alright…?”
“Don’t know…” he murmured. He slid the resistor back into his shirt. “Don’t know a lot.”
“We all wish we could know everything, don’t we?” Atienna returned, staring out the mouth of the pocket. “Not knowing just means we have the capability of knowing—learning—more.”
P nodded slowly before staring blankly at his feet.
Atienna was rather surprised that P had mentioned the resistor so easily. She wasn’t at all surprised by his knowledge of it, however. That aside, the pieces were beginning to come together within her mind. Rather, they were beginning to fit into the image she had already painted.
“P…” Atienna whispered. “What do you think of the memory portion of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis…?”
P blinked slowly out of his daze before turning towards her. “Memory… what?”
Atienna shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
On a quiet night during the period when Atienna would usually be visited by Werner, she suddenly felt him slip away into a void. She shot up from her bedding in front of the campfire in alarm and barely managed to contain a shout of alarm as pain whipped through her limbs and pounded at her skull. The world spun but she managed to control her breathing until the pain gradually dulled.
He was hurt, she realized. Badly. So much so that she could barely feel him. This was different from the time both he and Olive ‘disappeared’ when Olive overrode him. She couldn’t feel the two then, but she could feel Werner now—rather, she could feel the void of darkness that engulfed him. The emptiness. How terrifying.
Her hands itched, and she balled her hands into fists as she bit the inside of her mouth.
… Cadence, she realized a beat after. It was because of Cadence.
Atienna released her balled fists and dug the palm of her hands into her eyes. She reached out once, twice, thrice, and became immersed in Cadence’s senses.
Still feeling the dull pain from Werner’s injuries, Cadence panted heavily, screeching to a halt in front of the crowded streets in front of the Abaccio. She had run all the way here from the Sognare. And despite the fatigue burning in her limbs, she pushed forward past the crowd blocking her view only to be shoved back by a police officer guarding the wood blockades set up around the perimeter.
Cadence paid the officer no mind.
Where… Where was Werner? Alma?
There. A familiar body dressed in a uniform adorned with medals was being raised onto a gurney by men and women in outfits marked with a red cross. Medical Conductors.
A familiar young man followed behind them. He wore round glasses and was dressed in similar military attire. Klaus Kleine.
“Is he alright?!” Kleine stammered to the medical Conductors.
“He’s stable,” the medical Conductors answered him without looking back. “Don’t worry. Please step aside. Have you been treated?”
“No, sir, I suffered minimal injuries!” Kleine stammered. “But—”
The speaking medical Conductor traded places with another one and turned to face Kleine as his associates carried Werner away. “Do you know that man?”
“Yes, sir. He’s my superior. His name is Werner Waltz, sir. I—he—”
“No need to call us ‘sirs,’ Mr—”
“Kleine. Klaus Kleine. Lance corporal.” Kleine saluted. “Where are you taking him?”
“To the Lamour Hospital,” the medical Conductor replied. “You should get yourself checked out too.”
“I’m alright, sir,” Kleine continued, eyes flicking to him and the receding Werner. “His condition?”
“He’s stable for now, but we need to take him to the hospital to be sure.”
But Alma. Where was Alma?
A dark-haired woman with a jacket thrown over her shoulders was being guided into the crowd by a tall man with a razor-sharp jawline. Enzo.
Cadence’s heart both rose and plummeted at the same time. She turned on her heels, dashed to the nearest phone booth. She reached the operator, blurted out a number she’d remembered by heart, and waited for the ring. When the line picked up, she whispered—
“Nico… I… I need your help.”
With heaviness weighing down her chest, Atienna pulled away from synchronization and lifted her head. The campfire crackled, its brightness, painful. Everyone near the fire was more or less asleep. The guards who were still up eyed her but did not address her. Wiping the wetness from her eyes, Atienna slipped out from her covers and started to drag herself back into the recesses of the cave.
It was different than the time with Jericho—back when he’d been injured in his first encounter with Omicron. Back then they had barely known each other. Although worry was an emotion Atienna had felt at that time, the feeling had now evolved into something more. Something akin to what she had felt when she had discovered that Usian had been dragging her brother Bachiru along with his schemes. And another discrepancy between Jericho’s incident and Werner’s incident was that this time it had been one of their own that had caused the damage.
And that was just…
Atienna made her way to her small cavern pocket and slipped inside. She sat there for a long time trying her best to collect her thoughts—no, to control her thoughts. But it was no use. They spiraled everywhere, incoherently crashing into each other like cymbals and drums.
She rammed her fist against the ceiling causing a layer of ice to fall onto her hair. Again. And again. Time ticked on.
“… are ya sure ya should be doin’ that?”
Atienna paused and looked up into the mouth of the pocket. Cadence stood at the opening. The campfire was just a spec in the distance but it illuminated her backside in a fiery copper halo. Her face was left shrouded in black.
Atienna studied Cadence before offering a genial smile. “Cadence.”
There was a pause.
Cadence rushed forward quickly, hands raised, expression torn with a grimace. There was no place for Cadence to hide—to conceal herself—in this situation, in this connection. Unpleasant.
“I… he’s fine. Werner’ll be okay… he’s in Nico’s care now, and Nico’s fantastic.” Cadence ran her fingers through her hair.
“But about Werner… ya gotta believe me,” she continued. “I didn’t mean ta. It was just an accident. The circumstances. Everything just happened way too fast. We were both at our wit’s end. I—”
“I think Werner was being reasonable,” Atienna replied, letting out a quiet breath to release the heat that had struck her chest. “Of course, I don’t know that for certain.” Because her synchronization with the man had been dampened.
“I—right,” Cadence agreed before she pressed: “But you know how easy it is to override Werner. It was an accident. I… It was a split-second thing. Before I realized it, he was—”
“Overrides do happen suddenly at times,” Atienna agreed. She met Cadence’s eyes. “We’re always hoping that we’re able to make the correct decisions when they do happen… right?”
“I—” Cadence’s voice caught in her throat. “It really was an accident. It happened before I could even think. Alma was hurt, and—all I could think of was savin’ her, and Werner was there and… they just attacked outta nowhere. I didn’t think he’d get hurt. I didn’t want him to get hurt. This had nothin’ to do with him. If I was there instead, I woulda…”
There was guilt boiling in the woman’s chest but alongside it grew a twisted tree of hopeful self-justification. Perhaps Cadence would have been able to justify herself better if Atienna weren’t connected to her. Cadence was quite a skilled manipulator, after all. Even if the person knew they were being manipulated, Cadence still pushed the right buttons for them to follow through with what she wanted them to do. A true swindler and yet still—
In Cadence’s mind, she was also a victim here—Atienna could tell. A victim of circumstance. Caught between a mafia family war and a terrorist organization’s machinations with a person she cared for at the center of it all. Atienna wondered—and she herself knew this was a biased thought—if Cadence considered Werner as ‘a person she cared for’.
“Of course I care about him.” Cadence looked taken aback. “He’s gotten me outta a lotta sticky situations, and he’s the reason why Nico’s not a stiff… I didn’t want this ta happen ta him. I didn’t mean ta. Ya know I didn’t. Ya can feel it, can’t ya?”
Yes, Atienna could feel it. She could understand it—where Cadence was coming from. Truly, it had been an accident. Circumstances, yes. A rash decision. A gamble that ended poorly. The regret was there as was the guilt, but also—
“It just happened so fast. I didn’t know what ta do, and I wasn’t thinkin’ and—”
Yes, victim-hood. A broken record.
It was quite easy to think this way, Atienna thought, and perhaps it was true. The line between perpetrator and victim was quite easy to blur depending on the lighting—the perspective and circumstance. This was why choice was always difficult. But if this was the case, then that also meant that a person couldn’t be a victim forever.
“I mean, he’ll be fine, right? He’s recoverin’,” Cadence assuaged, sounding as if she was trying to convince herself. “I rang up Nico, and Nico’s gonna treat him so he’s gonna be okay. Nico’s the best. He’ll be fine. He’ll just be out for a bit—and I got a plan ta make up for it. Honest. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. Angry—don’t blame him—but fine.”
Atienna wondered what Cadence’s reasoning was. Perhaps it was ‘if nothing bad came out of a selfish decision, then it shouldn’t be considered bad?’ Or ‘an act of redemption could cancel out a selfish one?’ How many good deeds rectified a bad deed? Was it even possible to balance out a selfish act? What was it that Werner had always said? ‘An action cannot be undone?’
If one had a bucket of black paint, no amount of added white paint would be able to bleach it completely. It would always be slightly off-white. It was just better not to mix those things.
Cadence lowered her head. “You’re angry. I get it. Ya deserve to be angry. It’s the situation.”
Yes, Atienna was angry. But above all, she was disappointed and hurt. Mostly on Werner’s behalf.
Cadence opened her mouth and closed it. “I… it was an accident. Honestly.” The light in her eyes changed. “I wasn’t thinkin’. I didn’t know what ta do… But what would you have done? If it was Bachiru?”
There it was.
Atienna closed her eyes for a moment and let out a quiet sigh.
Perhaps Cadence was right. Perhaps she would have done the same. And if she would have been put in a similar situation as Cadence with her brother Bachiru present instead of Alma and if she would have followed Cadence’s course of action, then Atienna surely would think of herself in neither the right nor the wrong. But if she were an outsider to herself, she would certainly have been disgusted at the selfishness.
‘As soon as you value one person more than another, you automatically become a villain,’ was the passage Cvetka had recited.
Atienna looked up and found Cadence staring back at her wide-eyed.
Really, who exactly was Cadence trying to convince—rather, deceive?
Cadence shut her open mouth, waiting.
And as Atienna came to realize what it was that Cadence wanted her to do, her rage quelled and became replaced with even more disappointment and another emotion. Atienna reached out to Cadence’s image, arm tensed, fist balled. Instead of doing as Cadence wished, however, Atienna placed a tender hand on the young woman’s face.
And there it was. A feeling Cadence rarely felt—or perhaps, rarely unveiled. An expression she rarely showed. Shame. Her brows crumbled with it, her shoulders wilted, her lips pulled downwards.
Despite the warmth that Atienna felt for her regardless of what had happened, Atienna couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction at the sight and even more satisfaction at the fact that Cadence could feel her satisfaction. It was an unpleasant feeling, and Atienna despised herself for feeling it.
“You won’t get anything from me, Cadence. Not forgiveness nor reassurance nor a perpetrator. The only person you can get things like that about this situation is from Werner.”
“…Atienna, ya really know everything, don’t ya.”
And with that, Cadence faded from her vision.
Atienna sat there in the darkness, the cold, alone until the campfire began to bustle with morning activities.
The closer they were, the farther apart they became. Was that how it was?
And then, of course, Maria came in with her usual dazzling brightness highlighting the sparkling positives in contrast to Atienna’s own morose negatives. And for a moment, as Maria’s thoughts filled her mind like sunlight on a cool day, Atienna thought briefly that everything would turn out all right.
Werner continued to remain in the dark as the days flitted by. Whenever he would cross her mind—which was often—she would try sending him pleasant thoughts in hope that if he caught her somehow at a low synchronization, he would at least have that. Unfortunately, however, Werner’s absence led to a discontinuation of the synchronization meetings. Atienna had initially tried to bring Cadence, Olive, Maria, and Jericho all together, but to no avail. Cadence skirted her, Maria was Maria, and Jericho was too preoccupied with thoughts of ELPIS to really partake. Olive joined her sometimes but he was understandably ill-tempered. It was difficult joining people together, she knew.
And so, Atienna decided it was time to move forward on a different stage. In regards to P, that was. It was betraying Werner in a way, but she had to reach the answer.
From the very beginning, she had been refining this theory. And it was from this theory that she had drawn her hypothesis regarding both ELPIS’s nature and P himself. Following her observations—
The knife-shaped, conductor-like object called a “resistor” that ELPIS was searching for—that had been embedded in Mladen’s abdomen upon his arrival. The portals and the destination. Kalama’s death, and Yulia’s sharp reaction to Mladen’s arrival. The ancient Ophiuchian blood conducting Olive had read about in the Bodhi Temple. And the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.
—she was ready to make her confirmation.
And so, Atienna waited for P to come to her. She could tell the difference between his footsteps and Sefu’s rather easily. Sefu’s steps were quiet yet sturdy—somewhat more controlled and stiffer since he was not used to walking on slippery surfaces. P’s were soft and shuffled like he was trying his best to go unnoticed.
P appeared in the mouth of the pocket, hands clasped together in askance. He was running away from Yulia again most likely. Atienna dipped her head in courteous acceptance and watched as he slipped in beside her.
P initiated their conversation, falling back into the question-answer, question-answer routine they had gone through previously. Eventually, their conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence. Beneath the surface, however, Atienna waited with tension, mustering up the courage to ask the question—
“Atienna…. ELPIS. How ELPIS now. Please… tell.”
Atienna froze. The question that she had been intending to ask had been asked to her instead. She turned and found him gazing at her hard, stern, serious.
And so Atienna did. She told him of ELPIS’s origins out from Ophiuchus. She informed him of their terrorist acts—destroyed generator conductors, indoctrination of children, the Tragedy of Aries.
P’s face crumpled before she even managed to get through half of it, and he buried his head in his hands as she finished.
“Terrible…” P murmured, voice muffled by his hands. “Not supposed to. Never. Not that. Help not hurt. Forgot purpose. No. Lost purpose…?”
Atienna fell into silence when P turned his eyes upon her. They were wet. With tears.
Atienna had not seen an adult cry in a very long time. No, that wasn’t quite true. Her father had cried many times in front of her mother’s bed. However, whenever she would pass by her mother’s room with her siblings, she would avert her eyes and herd them elsewhere.
“P…” Atienna drew slowly. “You’re with ELPIS, aren’t you?”
P’s eyes widened. “Not supposed to. Not like that. ELPIS, now. Wrong. Not meant to be.” He bit the bottom of his lip and nodded his head in confirmation.
As expected, Atienna’s heart became lit afire at the admittance. But letting out a sigh, she released Jericho’s anger and instead focused on the itching in her palm. “You became a part of ELPIS as soon as you were stabbed with that knife, right? With that ‘resistor’…?”
P nodded slowly, still pale.
“And it’s not manipulation…”
P shook his head furiously. “No manipulation. Never. Manipulation, terrible.”
Atienna let out a quiet breath. “Is it possible for you to tell me what it is then? What exactly is it that resistors do? What do they contain?” She paused, apprehension building in her chest.
P opened his mouth, closed it, stared out the pocket entrance, stared at his hands. Atienna waited for him to go through all the motions, patiently. Perhaps, a bit sympathetically.
Finally, he turned to her and nodded. “I will… tell. Everything. Try. What I know. And remember. About ELPIS. And Ophiuchus.”