Charlotte dropped a dollar into Mr. Kol's tray and took a candle from the pile in front of him. The old rock had been working at the church for as long as anyone could remember, long enough that cracks had started to form around his eyes and mouth, but if he'd ever learned English he never let on. He silently nodded thanks to Charlotte, and she smiled and walked off as usual.
There was a table next to Mr. Kol with a small basin of sand built into the top, dozens of lit candles stuck into it. Charlotte lit hers off one of the others and stuck it in with the rest, crossing herself as she did so.
It was busy that morning, enough that she worried this might be some obscure holiday she'd forgotten about, but no, it was just a busy morning. Dressed in his usual Sunday robe of plain gray, Toh had managed to get his usual seat, and he nodded at her as she walked in. His pew was packed, but the seat next to him was empty. Always a gentleman. Or was this inconveniencing people who'd gotten there early, making her a jerk and Toh her accomplice?
Overthinking it, she told herself as she squeezed by the other churchgoers in the row, no easy feat considering several of them were rocks.
"Good morning," she said, keeping her voice down.
"Not as good as you think," Toh muttered. Charlotte followed his gaze up to the altar and groaned. Standing beside Father Paul was a towering rock, dressed in a flowing robe of silver, with an ornamental mitre of silver and crystal atop his head and a matching scepter in his hand.
Charlotte sighed. "Oh geez."
"With his fancy space-hat and everything," Toh said. Bishop Pok had taken a liking to the church lately and had graced the congregation with his presence several times this season, an honor so considerable that Father Paul always made the services more elaborate than they had to be when the bishop showed up. They'd be here out of here forty-five minutes later than usual, easy. She took out her tablet, trying half-heartedly to conceal it, and let Kat know that she'd be late to lunch.
Services after that point were predictably deadly. Every part of the liturgy was read once in English and once in Vrachok-C, the communion line was long and slow, and it seemed like the cantor was hamming it up a little and holding each chanted verse just a few more beats than usual – seemed like a petty point, but Charlotte was bored enough to run the math in her head and estimate how much more time a few seconds to each verse added to the whole service. To say that her mind wandered would be inadequate. Her mind quit its job, withdrew a bunch of cash from its accounts, and went off backpacking through the wilderness. She thought about what she needed to buy at the grocery store later, of what was in their pantry already and what was on sale and what combinations these things could be assembled in to create a few dinners and lunches for the week. She thought about whether they were putting their money in the right places in the galactic market, or whether all the doomsayers were right and she should be buying up refined ores in case the bottom fell out of the economy. She thought about whether this was the right time to adopt, whether it would ever really feel like the right time.
She almost fell asleep, got close enough that her head leaned far forward and her brain shot her to attention to recover balance. She shook her head and sat upright, and saw there were now three people up at the altar. There was Father Paul in his familiar old fatness, and the regally done up bishop, both standing off to the side now, and in the middle of the dais…
It was a zoltan. It was naked, and strange – no defined edges, just a humanoid haze of color and light. It stared at her, eyes shining not with soft yellow luminescence but with harsh, blinding solar light. She blinked, and afterimages of those eyes hung on her eyelids.
"This?" it asked. "Is this your choice?"
"No!" she shouted. She had to get out of here. The Kestrel… "No! I don't choose this!"
"Words are words. The mind chooses, and the heart. The Eye sees." The green of the zoltan's insubstantial form grew darker, and the light of its eyes dispersed into a burst of rainbow light. "The Eye reveals."
And it was gone.
She and Toh walked out together at the end of the service. If not for Toh, she wondered if she'd still go to services at all; 8 didn't much go for religion, and it was a lonely prospect to keep going back here alone.
"Sho is here," Charlotte whispered, elbowing Toh. She spotted the rock woman talking to Mrs. Barlow at the bottom of the church steps. She was dressed similarly to Toh, in a plain formal robe, and while Charlotte couldn't actually spot the facial features and differences in frame that marked Sho as female, she knew she was single and that Toh thought she was cute.
Toh grumbled something about not wanting to interrupt. Charlotte almost noted that Mrs. Barlow was probably trying to embolden Sho to talk to Toh herself – she and Charlotte had been working this one from both ends – but decided against it. Both rocks were stubborn and shy, and anything but the gentlest of pushes would probably backfire.
They parted ways, and Charlotte got in her car. It needed no prompting to start the drive to her lunch meet-up, relying instead on its programmed routines, and Charlotte simply sat back and watched the neighborhood roll by. Camaran was originally a planet of small human colonies, but since the birth of the Federation it had grown to a highly diverse population of two billion. She and 78 had decided to live outside of the cities, settling down in a suburban community outside of the regional capital.
Her friends were few, but dear. Her job at the water treatment plant was hard but not slavish. The uncertainties of the galactic community threatened, but no great war or economic disaster loomed in realistic possibility. There was peace and plenty, and all was well.
"Choose," she muttered to herself. She couldn't say why she'd said it, but she chalked it up to random association in her mind and boredom and didn't dwell on it.
Charlotte took a bite of her sandwich, and Kat took one of the small, sedated rodents from the to-go box in her right pincer, dunking it in a little plastic tub of sauce and popping it in her mouth. As they walked through the busy outdoor market, Charlotte gave herself a pat on the back for how little of a reaction she had to this.
"Sounds like you're working maybe a little too hard on this one, Char," Katarek said.
"I'll have you know that this sort of social meddling is entirely standard in the congregation. If we didn't conspire to get Toh and Sho together, it would practically be a breach in protocol," Charlotte said. Kat stared at her, her head cocked judgmentally to the side, and Charlotte gave an exasperated sigh. "So I like going to weddings! Does that make me such a monster?"
"Sorry I'm a dead end on that count," Kat said, dabbing at the rodent blood dribbling down her chin with a napkin. They passed by a stall selling artisanal nutrient serum, and Charlotte stopped to see if they had any of 78's preferred blends.
"You're not a dead end, Kat. You just belong to a…an interesting species." She looked up at the engi running the stand; she thought the cyborg looked kind of dirty, having neglected polish for some time and flecks of rust around his face screen, but 8 assured her that this look was usually an affectation, intentionally cultivated, in many nutrient serum artisans. Apparently an unkempt appearance was associated with a quality product – it didn't make any sense to her, but like everyone else, the engi were an odd folk. "Do you have J-70-10-20?"
The engi nodded and pointed to the end of the stall, an audible whine in the poorly-oiled joints of his neck and arm. Charlotte went looking and found a few of the appropriate canisters.
"'Interesting,' she says! You want to know how many businessmen I got just this week, asking me to go all the way?" Kat asked.
"All the way," in mantis parlance, meant that the female ate the male after intercourse. Though the act had been illegalized centuries ago, the instinct to be devoured remained burrowed deep in the mantis male's subconscious, inextricably linked to the sex drive, and it was never difficult to find a prostitute or even a casual hookup willing to oblige. It had remained virtually the only means of suicide mantis males had used throughout their species history. Kat's people, the Ktalpik, theoretically espoused more long-term relationships, but their success rate was hit-or-miss.
"Nine. Just this week! In varying levels of detail over how they want me to do it. It's a jungle out there, Charlotte, a brutal, stinking jungle." Without apparent irony, Kat dunked another rodent in sauce and put it in her mouth, sucking in its little tail like a strand of spaghetti. "Ooh! Over here."
Charlotte bought a few canisters, then followed Kat a few stalls over, where a local metalworker had set up his wares. These seemed primarily to include weapons: knives, axes, kitschy black powder firearms. Kat tossed the empty rodent sack into a nearby trash bin and picked up a curved sword in its sheath, gingerly turning it over in her pincers and chittering admiringly.
"Ahhh," Kat hissed. She yanked the sheath partly down the blade, exposing a few inches of glinting, patterned steel. She looked up at the slug running the stall. "Very fine."
"Issssn't it? A precisssse replica of the very blade with which the Bride ssstruck down her nemessssissss, the cruel and dassstardly 'Bill.'"
Charlotte, who didn't think "Bill" sounded like a very intimidating nemesis name, looked it over. "Planning to go to war, Kat?"
Kat clucked. "A certain human I know is soon having a birthday considered important by the standards of her people."
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "I mean…"
"Apparently, in their society, once a human has lived for thirty of their years, the human is considered a geriatric, practically dead and mummified already. Their brains become dust and ashes…"
"…and as for their looks, well…"
"Anyway, want a sword?" The mantis sheathed the blade fully and held the handle out to Charlotte. "Hold it. See if it makes your heart sing."
Charlotte chuckled and pulled the handle back as Kat held the sheath still, bringing the curved blade out with a loud, pitchfork twang. She flourished the weapon, looking at it admiringly. It felt a little weird to be standing in an open market, blade in one hand and sandwich in the other, but despite that…well, while she would never use the words 'makes my heart sing' herself, she could not deny that there was a power in this drawn weapon, a rightness…
"You're dead, Kat," Brant said. She looked up from the blade, which she now gripped in both hands. Had she had a sandwich? That seemed inconsequential. Everything was frozen, Kat and the slug and the rest of the crowd. "We've got to stop meeting like this. The Rebels filled you with holes. We got them right back, but it happened."
"She never died," said a zoltan. It stood next to Kat, its body insubstantial, dark green mist, its glaring eyes blinding her. "Not here."
The Kestrel. The Flagship. "This is a dream," said Brant. She took a step back from the zoltan, and another, but she gained no distance from it. It did not seem to move, merely hung still in her vision like a splotch on her corneas after looking at the sun. Everything else grew hazy.
"You have always been dreaming. What you thought was the world was a representation, produced by your mind using the tangled, limited signals of your mechanistic senses. Light shone on the balls of meat in your skull, and that meat sent some sparks to the meat inside of your skull, and it put those sparks together with some chemicals into some childish amalgam of imagery and sensation. What you thought was the world was a pitiful butchering of reality, but you have made it sacred to you because it was all your consciousness had to cling to."
They stood in empty blackness. The stall was gone, and the slug, and Kat, and the market, and the world. They had faded, or they had never been there.
"The Eye could offer you so much more than this. It could unshackle your consciousness, release you from the illusion of linear time and mechanistic experience, show you a depth of sense and existence that you cannot imagine. But you cannot truly want what you cannot imagine. You cannot truly choose it. I offer you this, instead."
Her ears popped, and she was once again in the outdoor market, full of noise and movement.
"Choose," said the zoltan.
Charlotte looked at the sword and whistled. "It's nice. I don't know. Where would I even put it, though?"
"The bellies of your enemies, silly!" Kat said. "Or maybe your mantelpiece the rest of the time."
Charlotte slid the blade back into the sheath. She certainly felt an attraction to it, but she wasn't sure that attraction was something to nourish. It was the power of a drawn weapon, the power to deal death and make heroic stands against your enemies that called out to her, but it was a childish fantasy. Charlotte had no enemies. Her foes were her mortgage, the balance of work and home and social lives, and the niggling uncertainties of her gradually unfolding future. There was no appeal in swords, but in problems simple enough that swords could solve them.
Choose, she thought. Choose.
"I don't know," Charlotte said. "…Surprise me."
"Sometimes, I wonder how you monkeys ever stopped perseverating long enough to leave your homeworld," Kat muttered. She handed the sword to the slug along with a payment card, and the slug took both with a gracious nod. "Muh muh muh! I'm a human! Somebody tell me if I've chosen the right life partner, or the right job, or the right nourishment! Muh muh muh! I can't tell myself!"
Charlotte, who had indeed perseverated overlong over which sandwich to get, bristled. Then she took a bite of her sandwich.
"Duhhh, I'm a mantis! Other species use their brains sometimes, and I think that's dumb! Duuhhh!" Charlotte spat out between chews of sandwich.
The slug handed Kat's card back to her, then presented her with a long, sleek box of black wood. Kat clucked appreciatively and took the parcel with both pincers.
"Surprise," Kat said, handing the box to Charlotte. "May your enemies be slow and full of fluid."
They said their goodbyes, having other errands to get to and minor issues to resolve. The car was pulling into her driveway twenty minutes later, as the early summer sun was reaching its height over the neatly manicured blue lawns of the suburbs. Mr. Slator was out across the street, fussing over the elegant shrubs in his front yard with a set of clippers. Charlotte waved at him, and he waved a silvery, three-digited hand in response.
"Sup, Slator?" she called out.
"Not very much, Mrs. Brant," he called back. "Some storm we'll have later, I hear."
A zoltan appeared next to her. He was lean, and dressed in an ostentatious coat of bioluminescent fur. He seemed to be breathing heavily, his face contorted in a look of effort and pain.
"Captain, quickly!" he shouted. He reached for her frantically, stepped toward her uneasily.
She was spinning through empty space, and the end had come. She'd managed to keep one breath in for all the good it would do, and she felt this seeping out the side of her mouth as the vacuum pulled at her. With only the distant stars to measure by, she couldn't tell how fast she was moving, but she was tumbling end over end about twice per second. Far off in the distance, growing steadily smaller, was the ruined husk of the Kestrel, blown into a dozen pieces and each of those still bombarded by distant laser canons. The seconds or minutes wore on, and then Brant lost consciousness. She died.
She was standing on the bridge, and the end had come. Explosions ripped through the chamber, but time seemed to crawl. She saw a fireball blossoming from the front of the room, enveloping Toh. The shockwave ripped him apart, and as the fractions of a second dribbled past, the devastation reached her in the captain's chair. Her flesh blackened and cracked, her hair and clothing were incinerated, her bones and teeth were shattered, her lungs and abdomen and skull ruptured by shrapnel erupting from the ship and from Toh. In one long instant of total violence, Brant lost consciousness. She died.
She was at a podium, speaking to a crowd, and the end had come. She was continuing her speech, an unmemorable little ditty about strength in unity and the virtues of valor and sacrifice, the audience of cadets in front of her apparently gobbling it up. The timbre of her voice had grown raspier, and the hands that gripped the speech in front of her were more wrinkled; she reached a part in the speech about the brave people who'd taught her those virtues, and she thought of 78, dead all these years. And then, two young men and a young woman got up from their seats; they wore the orange armbands of the New Rebellion, and they held pistols. They shouted something, some slogan probably; security was already rushing to take them down and to whisk her off the stage, but a round of sizzling white energy struck home in her chest. The blood in her heart and the air in her lungs and the marrow in her ribs superheated. Her chest exploded, and Brant lost consciousness. She died.
"This is what he offers you."
She was on her lawn. The zoltan in the fancy coat was on her knees, scowling with pain and seemingly paralyzed in a rigid spasm. Another zoltan stood over him, this one dark green and hazy, looking more like a blotch on her own corneas than a physical being in its own right. This one glared at Charlotte with piercing, blinding eyes.
"This baby, this larva – he offers you violence, pain, death. This one tries to force your choice, yes he does."
The dark and hazy creature held up a hand, and the zoltan in the coat cried out in pain, his body jerking back. Charlotte could not quite piece together who either of these people were, but she felt a gut instinct and rushed to help. Her steps did not seem to bring her any closer to the two zoltan, though, the pair hanging just as far out of reach no matter how fast she ran.
With another cry, the zoltan in the coat vanished. The dark one gestured at the blue lawns around her.
"Choose. The Eye offers you this. Choose." And it was gone.
Charlotte was on the other side of the street, on Slator's lawn. This didn't make sense to her – she's been on her own lawn a second ago – no, wait, she'd gone over to admire his shrubs. That's right.
"I think they look great," she said.
"You're kind. But look here." He gestured at some leaves, where the slightest bit of brown was creeping in around the edges. "Thirsty little bushes. They'll be happy for the rain later, at least."
"I'm not complaining, either. Sometimes when the weather's great, I'm like 'Damn it, now I really have to go out and enjoy it,' when I really just want to sit on the couch and watch vids. It's nice to not have to feel guilty about enjoying myself lazily."
Slator laughed, the clangy, metallic quality of his voice coming through more prominently. "Well, to each their own, Brant. Enjoy your night of vids and laziness."
Brant laughed politely and went back across the street. She got the bags out of the car, noting only now as she hefted their surprising lightness that she'd forgotten to get milk. She thought of tomorrow morning's coffee and grumbled.