Lantas undid her stingray-shaped hair clip, letting the pink spirals fall. It was the final step in the transformation, which had involved methodically shedding her collaged outfit for a simple short-sleeved bodysuit and long cape, respectively coloured in magenta and orange.
A pair of white bracelets adorned her right wrist, and she wore orange ankle boots that sagged artfully at the tops. They were not the normal clothes for her type of scientist clone, where instead very close to those of the type sometimes called "strategists", but there where enough differences that Lantas felt comfortable with the form.
She looked to the pile of shed clothes and sighed. They consisted of a necklace that had gone round her cranium, a mint-swirl beret, oversized red vest, puffed white shirt, Human military pants, and matching boots. She had loved the bizarre mixing, but really wanted was to slip back into them because it would mean that this all was not real.
But it was real, and Lantas had to spare a glance for the padded chest-shield resting on a nearby shelf. You're being paranoid, she told herself, but today also might be the day when that paid. It wasn't as if there was no precedent, and she would be alone at the podium.
So Lantas had to dress again, this time strapping the shield on underneath her garments. Its could send the wrong message, but now she would be unable to leave the apartment without it, nor the sidearm at her back, concealed by her cape.
Lantas descended the helix staircase, crossed the foyer, and entered the courtyard. Everything seemed to be carved out of single blocks of the same smooth, seaside-coloured ceramics, but today she would see its beauty only as a means to an end.
Before crossing the courtyard, Lantas squinted briefly in the sun. She might never get used to it, being out in the bright after a lifetime in the dark depths of ships and buildings. But she increased the speed of her walk, navigating the maze of tall, curling buildings with their damaged facades and columns.
Lantas mentally disassembled these buildings as she made her way to the mica-tile plaza. What was replacing the destroyed Tiresian works might be less elaborate, erected hastily, but hopefully in time their frames would again sport the same sleek muscles.
Several Tirolians, both natural-born and clones, were already there, called by the posters that had been put up several days before. They murmured among themselves, informally separated by cause rather than origin.
Because they had come to hear Lantas, everyone parted to let her pass, though one man, a "born" (short for "natural-born", a label Lantas let them have), bulky for a Tirolian, moved to block her for a few moments before moving on, his scowl never changing.
The stage was another thing that resembled a singular carved block, steps and podium being one with it. Lantas tried to ascend the sculpted steps like she owned them.
A speaker set in the gleaming podium betrayed its artificial nature, and she pressed the carved button to activate it.
Hers was going to be another of the amateur talks, hoping that the newly established government would listen, finally granting her people what they wanted. Cabell was also doing what he could, but these latest officials were reluctant to trust him, for his involvement in the old regime, and that he was "biased" in wanting to help the race that he had helped create.
Races, Lantas had often mentally amended to these explanations. Dammed idiots; never mind all that Cabell had done for them recently, they were determined to forget that epic.
In the space of a few heartbeats, Lantas went through all the things Cabell had taught her about debating, then discarded them all in favour of the moment.
"You all know why you're here, don't you? You came because there is something you are afraid of. But everyone here is afraid, because Tirol has not yet recovered from ravages both military and cosmic. Can you turn your backs on those who share your blood, when so much of that has already been spilt?"
Several borns were blinking at her, apparently expecting a preamble. Lantas smiled inwardly.
"You can stop pretending, for one thing!" called a born man. "You're just puppets looking for someone else to put their hand in. Just because you've found one, doesn't mean you can pretend it's something else."
Lantas would ignore that. "Where is the evidence? Where is the evidence which I can see with my own eyes that I am not worthy of education? Of a multifaceted life?
"The answer is that there is no evidence. There is no reason not to allow clones to take that test. All we want is to live, and there is no horror to be found in that."
"Why shouldn't we be afraid?" started up another born, an elderly woman this time. "How can we trust you, when your birth was part of our misery?"
"Why make suppositions, when you're not giving us a chance to try?" Lantas recognized the mechanized-sounding voice of one of her own people, challenging the other commentator. "We came to this world, helped you make shelter, healed your sick, defended your homes. What is your reasoning for turning your backs?"
Lantas knew. Sentients the worlds over often searched for something convenient to put blame on after a disaster. In this case, anger at the decadence and abandonment of the Masters was to be taken out on their creations. But she couldn't act as if she knew, couldn't give a bit of ground.
"You were grown in vats, instead of from a mother and a father," someone else said. "How can you claim to possess love when you have never known its most fundamental form? You can't relearn your entire life as an adult."
That woman's calm, reasonable tone made the words sting harder than others. Lantas felt herself unravelling, the stab of social awkwardness. "You are all dealing in abstracts, appealing more to a poetic vision than what's actually before you. The simple fact is, we haven't been given a full chance to prove ourselves."
"Are you calling a parent's love irrational?" inquired the woman who'd been speaking, a tall, fat one with a fall of grey-green hair. "You shouldn't be making judgements about things you'll never understand."
Another born: "Discard your persecution complex: we just don't want to waste resources on beings who might not even have the capacity to learn. Frankly, it's selfish of you to even ask that while we're still rebuilding."
"We're only asking for what every person needs, and to work against the wrongs done us."
Another: "Done you? So the attack yesterday was just imagined?"
Lantas knew of the incident, a vicious attack on some borns by a former guardian duumvirate. "Do you withhold mercy from your own people because that record isn't spotless? I don't condone the violence of mine, and it doesn't define us. Not any more than your thieves and murderers define you.
"There has been enough war, enough corruption, enough loss. If we pass through these hardships together, things will improve."
"So why don't you off yourself then!"
"Keep the streets clean!"
They were youth's voices, a quick snapping parody of bravado. Closing her eyes, Lantas put two long fingers to the side of the podium and tapped it, which would hopefully work again to calm her. "'What was created for corrupt purposes isn't corrupt itself.'" An old, stale line, but it didn't mean she wasn't running out of fuel. She just needed a second wind.
"You're forgetting that these are also our streets," said a clone to someone in the crowd.
"The Masters don't own them anymore. The world belongs to us."
"Oh, well," sneered another clone. "Then present your permit right now."
"Not unless Ghosts can see blood without spilling it."
Two small groups within the crowd cried out at once and began to rush each other. On the stage Lantas took two steps backward, cursed, as others before her were swept into the fighting.
Some younger borns were trying to climb the carved stage, including the hecklers. Lantas jumped down into the square, and only let herself a second of bewilderment, before grabbing the shoulders of the two nearest her and telling them to stop.
Someone clutched at her cape, and Lantas tried to rip free. The strong Tirolian fabric wouldn't go, and she was pulled around to face the pale, angular image of one of her own, before his fist crashed into her cheek.
Head throbbing, Lantas swung out one leg, slamming the clone's ankles together, and she pushed him down as he stumbled. A thought swam up to her mind's surface. Why am I still surprised?
She'd let them all get the better of her, that was the problem, Lantas later thought, sitting inside the transport on the way to the law building.
And the thought kept tumbling around in her head: I shouldn't be thinking like this. I am a scientist, I have to be a good example. Any blow she struck should be one against her own heart.
But there was that other part of her, completely against all conditioning, that wanted to strike back. Wanted to be angry, to get at the enemies by any means, until there were none left. Before they did it to her.
There would be bruises all over her form, but at least that one born had gotten a surprise when he'd tried to punch her in the innards, and no weapons had been fired.
The law building was staffed by an inexperienced lot, hastily elected when the need had arisen for them. Several guardian clones had suggested helping them with the management and understanding of their new duties, but had been turned down.
Inside, the shouting and shuffling of papers contrasted with the venerable, majestic structure of the building itself. Lantas was questioned by a man who tried to look stern, but his constant coughing offset it. She answered everything honestly, even as she felt like she was being led into confessing the violence was her responsibility, that she had provoked it.
When Lantas admitted she had been carrying a weapon, the born checked it to indicate it had not been fired, and confiscated it anyway. "It is troubling enough with the guardian and pilot clones who won't give their weapons up; we can't have scientists arming themselves, too.
"But since you did not fire, and there is nothing written that I can charge you with, and the useable cells are already quite full, you will be released. This time."
The message was unmistakable, of course.
"Return home as soon as you can," he finished, after a particularly nasty fit of coughing.
Not all of her friends who attended were so lucky, and had been put up for the night. Lantas left them with a promise of a visit whenever she could, feeling guilt twist her insides. Legally she could not provide the Tirolian equivalent of bail, but the guild it did not go away as they went into the silent courtyard. By this time, it was twilight.
"We're going to do better next time," that was turquoise-haired Hermos, a born, but one of the best speakers for the cause they had. "You did fine today, Lantas."
"Hm. Yes, well, I guess anything that ends in a riot at least gets attention." She paused for a moment. "I'm sorry. I don't know if that's darkly humorous or just dark."
"You told me it took years for Humans to effect internal status changes," pointed out Kertellus, a member of a scribe duumvirate. His twin brother, Protus, also nodded. "So this isn't the end of everything."
Back at the plaza, someone had smashed two of the clones' personal transports.
"Well, we were planning on travelling in a group, weren't we?", commented Kertellus, while Lantas had just stared.
Exedore wore the outfit he'd been given by the Haydonites to replace his REF uniform. According to him, it was a fusion of all the things he'd ever worn: white bodysuit, belted, with two angled purple markings at the chest, wrists, and boot cuffs, a black marking between those first, leading to pointed black shoulderpads from which hung a blue cape with armholes. High on each sleeve he wore an emblem: Zentraedi cizion on the left, RDF sigil on the right.
He had a box of datacards underneath his arm, from the lecture he'd been giving that day on the other end of Tiresia. Exedore put these down and they met in the centre of the room; he had to stand up a bit higher to embrace Lantas properly.
"You're hurt," And he was tugging off one short white glove with the other hand, before reaching up to stroke her cheek. Gently he took her long arms and inspected the cuts and bruises, as if he could heal them by sheer concentration.
But Lantas had had enough time to dress the wounds before he'd arrived. She explained. "Another dammed riot. Everything seemed stable, but just the mere word 'ghost' set off some factions, and everything else fell from there. It should make the public media soon. What about you? Did anything happen?"
While she talked, Lantas ran her fingers through his blood-coloured hair, touching his prominent cheekbones.
It had not been that long ago that Exedore used to shudder whenever she did that, making Lantas draw away herself, afraid of upsetting him, but, stammering, Exedore would say that he liked it. Gradually he had gained control.
Exedore's production had been less explicitly political, an eloquent (or at least I'd call it that, Lantas had noted with a small smile) presentation on the ills of internal strife, including the friction it could create with Tirol's trading partners. Examples had been used from all the local group worlds.
Now he said, closing his eyes, "There were no major difficulties but the usual foolish and tactless commentary. As if the contradiction of me was more important than the information I had to offer.
"I attempted, then, to posit myself as an example of how much one could move beyond their circumstances. Naturally no good came from that."
Of course not. Doing that was a lapse, a desperate move that would look too much like boasting. One had to use others as proof of something. Even when you were the only one of that type present...
But she wouldn't ask him yet. Not after all this.
Instead she would sit on the low, semicircular couch. Exedore came over with a chipped tray with two glasses of Tirolian wine, and they drank together, staring at the blank wall. Its curve normally would have projected the sky, but the power couldn't be spared.
This was a high room in one of the largest intact buildings in Tiresia, one that had had become a sort of tenement for artificial beings and those who could stand to be with them.
It was actually just Exedore's, given to him when he'd been staying on Tirol long enough to warrant it. Lantas had moved in after deciding that it was selfish to have her own room when she could easily go into this one; other clones might be needing the space.
On its own, that had felt like too radical a thing for their wonderfully slow-paced courtship, but she and Exedore had adjusted very well.
But now it would have been even better to be in the great libraries again, sitting on long couches angled away from each other, reading in the warmth of midafternoon, occasionally breaking the silence with something that was particularly interesting. There was still so much to learn, and the library had sheltered them from the outside.
Or they could back on Earth, watching it regrow, where clones were merely strange and not symbols of a society torn. Or just any place where they were free to go about their own business, when the "refined" Tiresia no longer offered that.
Lantas asked, suddenly, "Why are there no reptilian sentients?"
It was a game of theirs, where one or the other would propose a question, and they would both follow it to the other lines of questioning, debating gently until both were too tired to continue.
Exedore had actually been the one to suggest it, basing it on the lines of questioning he'd taken his Human investigators through, many years ago.
He had lived much longer than she had, knew much more, but it had only been in the last few Earth decades that Exedore had begun to exercise this knowledge for his own reflection and pleasure. Thus, Lantas had never felt intimidated playing these games, though perhaps their bonding had provided an additional buffer.
Today as some other days they ended up talking with Lantas resting her back on Exedore's chest, fingers twined, speech even softer and ever more unhurried.
"What about the old laboratories? I'm assuming they're not prohibited?"
Kertellus paused before putting the spoon all the way to his mouth.
Cabell: "Well. I'm assuming you're not just interested in the workings?"
The old born sounded amicable, but Lantas still felt that faint contempt and confusion regarding her relationship with Exedore. She was still studying under him, however, so it was best to let it go unspoken. "That's true; it is past time."
"Why? They're just ruins. Nothing worth salvaging."
"We're not all slaves to routine," Lantas mocked (hopefully gently) to Medis, a clone designed for mechanical repair who did not seem interested in expanding his horizons, even if he supported the cause. "We look to things because they're interesting, not necessarily because they're useful."
Exedore, Cabell, Lantas, Kertullus, Medis, and several others were eating in a bistro that still allowed artificials. Some had travelled there without siblings, perhaps meaning independence.
"I think that I would like to accompany you," Exedore said. "I have always intended to journey back there, and it could be...fascinating. Perhaps we should bring some recording equipment."
Lantas nodded at him. The rest of them ended up declining, which was fine, even if Lantas had not asking solely to set up an isolated meeting. For that she would have directly asked Exedore alone.
But it was starting to gnaw more fiercely now, and so she would ask the question on the trip.
They all talked further at the table, sometimes laughed (except for Exedore, whom Lantas had never heard laugh, and might have been unnerved if she had), because it was not all about politics.
Lantas felt herself relaxing, enjoying it even though it was temporary. Making friends was difficult for her kind, as rigidly segmented as they had been, and she was grateful for every opportunity.
Tirolians claimed to be enlightened, above superstition. But while the labs were on the outskirts of what had once been a thriving metropolis, none had ever discussed restoring the buildings near the complex, not even with the extensive reconstruction that had been occurring.
Lantas could not begrudge them. A shiver had occurred to her, too, when thinking of exploring the laboratory complex, a sensation that had prevented her trip during calmer times, though most of the time this prevention had felt like mere procrastination.
It might have been the growing tension in the air that had prompted her.
No born could return to the confirmed seat of their race's creation. Only speculations could be made, and some, feeling this loss, could only apply the related reverence to their females, who really were just borns like them.
And so were Cabell and Zor, true. But this was different. Zentraedi and other clones could have a Real Place. Not a story, not a speculation, but actually where their races had begun.
The area had checked for dangerous fumes or chemical residues, and found to be completely safe for the unprotected; what had eroded over time, had done so more cleanly than its Earth counterparts.
Exedore and Lantas wore their formal uniforms, both of the garments strong enough to withstand anything that came, though capes that could catch on protruding machinery or rocks had been removed.
There was equipment, but it had been left behind in the transport, both of them having agreed that one inspection needed to be undertaken before a more formal record could be preserved.
Lantas was the first to find a door that still worked, and together they ventured into the warren. Dark rooms were passed, and Lantas wondered again about how everything had been put together, the formation of shelter from what had begun as materials in the ground.
But eventually she could no longer think of the laboratory complex as a mere set of frames, for they had found the first creation chamber.
It was made of dark metal and ceramics, the latter with faint veins of green and blue within it, which the light brought out.
Upright, rectangular tanks were connected to the intricate dead machinery. The tanks came in uniform clusters of four, leftover from when the Flower fanaticism had not yet taken hold.
These ordinary-sized clones, her people, had been the original artificials, a test people. But her ancestors had only been created for guardianship and...ornamentation, at first, extra care taken to remove the tinny voices and ghostly skin tones because not many clones had needed to be made.
Lantas had told Exedore and Cabell about her past before; there was nothing left to reveal. She had not opened her eyes alone but beside sisters, her mirror images, but with purple hair and orange-red hair. They had all been dressed identically, plain dresses of grey-blue, vests and gloves of varied fiery combinations, a second-tier scientist triumvirate, gatherers and observers.
Lantas, Pythis, and Archus had lived among the "plebeian" clones and sent out findings on strange behaviour or unusual tendencies to the group who lived with the Masters on the bridge.
It was those higher scientists who would have determined if there was a problem or not, though Lantas and her sisters had been permitted to analyze and offer their opinions, and to also explore other data and aspects, but everything had been limited.
Lantas had resented the unspoken policing aspect of her role. Her thoughts had often strayed to something more, but she had been conflicted about telling anyone, including her siblings, for they might not have kept the secret, and she would have been deprogrammed. "I had to keep the thoughts to herself, or risk losing them altogether," Lantas had finished, the first time she had explained her life to them.
There was another story, one she had also shared but tried never to think about. Now it was rolling back up to her like a wave, and she could not avoid it.
As the flagship was falling, clones had been falling as well, to their knees to wait for doom. Lantas had felt the temptation, was bent halfway to the floor, before NO! came into her by a surge of emotion.
She had turned instead to her huddled sisters. "Come on! We have to go! Come on!"
Fire-haired Pythis had pulled a shard of debris from underneath her vest, and grabbed the unresisting Archus, putting the metal to her sister's throat.
At this gesture, blood was already flowing, from Pythis' palm where the jagged piece had cut it.
Pythis appeared not to notice. Her voice was calm, without quaver. "We can't go. That world isn't for us. I will do her first--"
Lantas ran to Ptyhis, unsure of plans, unsure if she was actually seeing such events.
Her sister twisted away, drove the shard into Archus' chest. Purple-haired Archus had choked and tried to pull it out, as Pythis released her and took several steps back, her bloodshot eyes wide.
Something had exploded in the distance. Lantas' mind had flicked through possibilities as if they were datacards. A murderer of a sister, but also her sister. What should she do?
Pythis stepped farther backwards into the smoke. Lantas elected to take Archus, dragging her to where the ATAC was calling. Lantas knew, vaguely, that it was close to the end. Those who refused to leave now would die with their masters, as they had wished.
Lantas had not seen the spores come. She had been with Archus in the medical bay when her sister had passed on.
Why are you covering her face!
Suddenly Lantas could feel her hand clenched to a claw on the glass, the present returned. She cried softly, in low, shuddering gasps.
"Here, now," said a voice next to her, and it took Lantas a moment to remember who it was, as she was being held, supported with a clumsy earnestness that would not let her collapse to the floor. Exedore's cape was somehow back, and he wrapped it about them.
There was nothing to say. She had been through this before, with various people present, and just had to wait until the wave passed again.
She eventually turned in Exedore's arms and looked back to the dead glass, at their grotesque faces reflected in it. What a peculiar pair they made, she thought with an inner smile.
Now? No. Not until Exedore was also allowed to see.
Lantas moved to indicate that she wanted to start walking again. They both began to wander, standing almost shoulder to shoulder this time.
"Do you ever regret it?" Lantas suddenly asked Exedore, realizing as it left her that she might have been asking about their bonding instead.
"Do I regret what?"
The ceiling was eroded there, creating a spotlight over the debris pile. They walked to the top and down, standing close together lest one stumble.
On the other side, Lantas specified. "Regret might be the wrong word. All those things, during Zor's time. Being the finger of the hand that pulled many triggers."
Exedore did not pause. "It might seem callous, but usually I do not. Sometimes it comes to me, but my final consideration is always, 'what of it'? Would it not make more sense to move forward, to do things the opposite of what I'd done before, instead of believing that my regret alone could reverse time?"
Lantas nodded. "It goes against everything I have, but do you know what? Sometimes I believe it's easier--better for me not to dwell too much on what you once were."
Exedore took her hand. "I think that we must both allow ourselves that luxury."
Lantas knew what Exedore had looked like before; the both of them had viewed Cabell's meticulous video records on each artificial race's creation, along with, on Exedore's side, old Earth recordings of the first Human-Zentraedi peace talks, and related political events.
The peace talks had stood out to her in particular. Lantas had laughed at Exedore's imitation of Minmei, found it charming that his only reaction to her mirth had been, "Well, it was the quickest way to explain," utterly without defensiveness.
Somehow, that had only made her smile more.
It had been strange at first to see Exedore's original visage, a bony, bulb-shaped head with larger nose and eyes and what Humans called a "mop-top" of hair.
Thinking of all this now brought to mind a certain other type of talk, that of modifying the Tirolian clones to appear more like their creators. Lantas had refused it, though was more ambivalent about eliminating the process altogether. Others might want it, but the borns would always know what she was under the skin, would always stare.
And there was more to it: she liked looking that way, the ice of her skin, the comical robot voice with the seriousness underneath. They might even make her "prettier", and she enjoyed the sharp wedge of her face, her hard androgynous body.
Lantas would never begrudge Exedore his choice of modification, but it would not be for her. Their appearance was only a small part of why they were seen as so strange, and retaining hers was a thing of pride.
As they kept walking, Lantas looked down to see the Zentraedi insignia stark against he white of Exedore's sleeve. Once, a short time ago, she had asked him why he still wore such a thing.
His reply had been: "Because the past cannot ever be forgotten, merely coped with. I believe the new Zentraedi civilization might keep it as our sign, but reclaimed, no longer merely an emblem of war.
"But now, it has taken on another meaning. The cizion is a sign for those still missing, that they may one day return. The act does not entirely make sense to me, but I shall continue on with it."
Exedore often seemed to underestimate his own emotional sensitivity. However, the gloom seemed to be frowning at the desire to talk.
The first Zentraedi-related area that they encountered was a chamber full of vast, banded capsules on one side, a great line of them leading off into the dark. Across from these were vats that might have seemed enormous even to Exedore's old friend Breetai, as well as screens and machines that had converted evolution into code, conditioning into input. But those had only been dams to stop the river, rather than evaporate it.
Beyond that were more standard machines for making armour and uniforms, even with some ruined discards: the decaying remains of sharp-kneed boots, bandoliers like fossil sea serpents, green and purple sheets of glass and metal.
When Exedore began to talk, it was in a distant voice.
"It had all been decided before I was awakened. Never any question of disposing of me, simply of turning me to different talents. It was Cabell who told me these things, and my abilities and occupation, and I accepted them.
"I remember a very white room, with a catwalk round the upper edges. I wore the same uniform as I would in Breetai's service, but the colouration had been different, then.
"These garments had been waiting for me in the darker room behind it, the one in which I had actually awoken. I knew instantly what to do with them, and also when finished, to venture through the door under which the stronger light was coming.
"I felt nothing profound in the fact of existing. I simply was. If I were not needed, I was simply still, like an automaton. There was no interest in anything else."
Lantas knew the rest of the Zentraedi story; Exedore had simply never described any of his feelings related to his creation.
After Exedore had been Dolza, with no secondary name because he was the only one of his kind. Then Breetai, first of the Tul line, aquamarine-skinned strongmen all, making up the bulk of the initial squads.
More clone lines, all subtly different, female lines created when the issue of whether or not that would be useful had finally settled. Miners, before imperial ambitions changed their position and forged roles that were in some cases analogous to their original ones. Exedore had been upgraded, given more knowledge, falsities, but some of it had been true.
Dear Exedore. He had had too much of a grand adventure, lived through so much. He didn't deserve this fear, this persecution. Lantas inquired his name softly.
"Yes?" Not at all startled, he turned to face her.
"What if you stayed on Earth permanently?"
He froze for a moment, then said, "V-Very well. If that is what you wish, I will simply tell you that I have had quite a wonderful time with you and hope you shall find another mate who--"
"No! I mean the opposite of that!"
Exedore seemed to relax, then he raised one hairless brow. "I cannot leave here permanently."
"I know you want to make a contribution, and I appreciate your help. But what about your reputation?"
"I've endured blows to it already; for this issue, I have become a trifle more reckless than usual. And with my being the only Zentraedi present in this sector--" they would never talk of the rest being dead, by an unspoken rule, "--my life is precarious no matter where I am. I would rather be here as much as I can without neglecting my role on Earth."
"You're in danger here."
"I...but I am, everywhere. Do you not think that I worry for you?"
Lantas sighed. "And we both agreed we wouldn't ever let fear stop us, I remember that. But Earth still wants your input on the SDF-3 issue, and on what is happening here. You're still technically part of the REF. I'm sure that nobody would object to you permanently staying there."
"I am aware of that. And of the possibility of being cast free by the UEG for my time spent here. But I am willing to take such a risk."
Lantas bit her lip. All signs should be telling her to hold off, now, but she could not.
Exedore said, "We should not allow yourselves to be blinded to the truth of the matter."
And what truth is that, O Wise Zentraedi Elder?
"That sometimes love can unbalance us."
That was it. "Don't you think I'm aware of what it's doing? Did it ever occur to you that even with that awareness, I might still make this choice?"
"But it is not yours to make. I realize that living on charity when you so desire independence can be taxing, but--"
Lantas swallowed the grunt of frustration. "I care about you. That should be obvious already. And also this...what we have...might be too freakish. It might be too distracting, too bizarre. If you left, it wouldn't be forever. We don't have to give up everything. Just until it begins to fade."
"Don't wheedle, Lantas. It doesn't become you."
Exedore flinched visibly at that, but, "Well, what shall we do? Do you not trust me when I say I appreciate your concern?"
"Do you not trust me? Or do you still feel that just because you've seen more, that you can make all the decisions?"
"But whose body would be leaving? What if I had asked you to come to Earth with me? Are you not going to be in danger whenever you step outside?"
"You know it's worth it for me. But these aren't your people. This isn't your fight." It felt wrong to say, but she could not stop its emergence.
"I am yours. And I was also created on Tirol. Hypothetically, I could ask that since you were created on it later, which takes the claim?"
Lantas glowered. "That's exactly what I mean from you."
"I was using it as an example, when the truth is that an ethical person would not claim that circumstances--"
"Ethical?" She scoffed. "This, from someone who helped direct worlds of destruction." She paused. "All right, I might have went too far with that one."
"You certainly did," Exedore snapped. "Now, I would like you to realize that I am not leaving. You had said you were worried about appearing overprotective; do act like it."
"Well, then act like you think of me as an equal. Or is that too much for your precious small ego to take?"
"Being an equal does not always mean acceding to your wishes."
"I'd wish for everything to be better. But that won't happen for years. So we ought to try to live that long, shouldn't we?"
"Oh, absolutely," Exedore replied with a half-lidded look of disdain.
Lantas turned on her heel, and left. But she stopped, realizing that there was no way to get of there but the transport. "I'm leaving. You want a ride, don't you?"
So she had to have Exedore jog after her, let him vault his way into his side, Lantas taking the pilot's seat.
She started the hovering machine before Exedore was settled, sending it roaring over the landscape. Their enemies in the police forces would be loving this, the perfect justification for putting a clone in the prison, but right now Lantas couldn't make herself care.
She stopped the transport in the apartment's courtyard, watched Exedore get out as if daring him to say something else condescending, then drove off again, only as far as the garage.
Lantas sealed the storage unit before checking her newest sidearm, then retrieved her cape from the back seat and swept it around her shoulders.
Lantas headed to the gardens, not the smaller ones at the apartments, but one of the larger ones that the borns had started to try to regrow around Tiresia, hoping they would be therapeutic.
She never should have let that get the better of her. Wasn't she smarter than that? But it was so hard almost to see. Why did such a minor thing, a scrape that every couple had been through, hurt so much?
She had just been trying to help. He'd nearly died trying to destroy the Matrix, and so many times before that. Males wanted to protect females all the time. Granted, at least in the stories, it often led to stupidity, but...
But we don't know anything, Lantas recalled. Neither she nor Exedore knew how to act in these sorts of situations.
Oh, curse it, now she was starting to cry. She banished it with a thought of, condescending old scavenger!
She turned away from the shattered tree to see some of her friends approaching. Lantas clenched her fists and straightened her back, forcing a smile before she turned. "What's going on?"
"You're back from the labs already? Where's Exedore?"
"Back at the domicile." She would lie. The thought of telling them made her want to hide. "Processing the recordings. It seems I'll be able to make the teaching sessions after all."
Kertellus' brother, Protus, remarked, "That's a very short time to spend at the seat of your creation, isn't it?"
"Even so, I wanted to take a walk. It was enough to...unbalance me. I needed the sunlight."
"You've had a fight," Hermos remarked.
"It's on your face," added Clio, a young female born who needed a hoverchair to move.
No point in denying it now. "It's nothing. There are more important things to deal with at the moment."
"'Take care of the small things, and the large ones shall fall into place'" quoted Protus.
Lantas glanced in the direction of the apartment, and saw no one coming. She found it was a relief.
"It's nothing," Lantas said again, after being led to the nearest bar by some of the group's younger members. "I simply told him that he would be safer on Earth, that it would be good to stop all the unwanted attention on us. But he refused to even consider it, and acted as if I had all these excuses, that it wasn't all real."
"It's that Zentraedi pride," said Scarcia, a lavender-haired female servitor clone. "I suppose even non-combatants have it."
Protus added, "Or maybe he's insecure. You know, like he's always been the weak one, and how he hates anything that reminds him."
"No," Lantas said, confused at the words she was preparing. "Exedore hasn't ever been timorous about his status or stature."
Protus grinned. "Okay, so he's feeling small."
Clio remarked, "I'd be flattered that he'd rather risk his life."
Lantas: "Well, I am not. I've already lost my sisters, and I don't want to lose him, too."
"As he's lost all of his old friends?", asked Hermos.
She frowned. "Of course that's the same, but it also isn't. For one thing, the Sterlings might still be alive somewhere." But the confirmed names Lantas remembered: Breetai, Rico, Bron, Konda.
"Then if you want to look at it another way, having such a different sort of Zentraedi here is an important symbol. You should have taken that into consideration before you asked him to leave." Hermos looked like he was about to wag his finger at her.
Lantas tapped her own against the bar. She and Exedore had never gone public with their bonding, either in word or display. But they had had to choose between doing nothing together outside, or risking having it noticed.
And that risk had been fulfilled, as Lantas and Exedore had been seen so often together by a small, suspicious population that their pairing had been confirmed and then jested at without either uttering a word.
Lantas tried not to care, knowing her choices were not to please others' senses or morals. But she had seen something deeper than disgust behind it: the Tirolians were witnessing a merging of the two worst things about the Masters' reign: the Zentraedi reminded them of war, and the ordinary clones of abandonment, of being passed over for a "perfect", docile society.
Lantas went on "And he hasn't ever been this close to the fighting. He is under protected status on Earth, while here he doesn't yet have it." She grimaced. Why couldn't she have phrased it so easily to Exedore?
Clio's only reply was, "So why don't you go find him?"
Lantas thought. Was he looking? Had to be. But her mind was whirling, without comprehension or direction, searching all the faces in front of her, but none were hers, none could tell her what to do.
Maybe she shouldn't have started this with Exedore. She was twisted, ill-suited with no awareness of the right things to say. And so was he, and that made it worse, impossible, bizarre, none to lead the other.
Suddenly Lantas wanted to laugh.
Scarcia suggested that she take something to calm her nerves, but Lantas replied, "I can't. I have teaching soon."
At least maybe she could get something right today.
"Teaching." The clones had that little session, a sort of "round robin" where each would step up and share information on their type of specialization, before sitting back down and letting another take a turn.
The hope was that the clones would learn more beyond their specialized occupations, and that had been fulfilled. From the guardian clones Lantas had learned how to use a sidearm and defend herself physically (though she was not too stellar at either), while in her sessions she'd taught them about science, knowledge, and respecting that.
Teaching was another occupation Lantas felt unfit for, but it meant so many things to successfully educate the other clones on new subjects.
It always took place in the basement of an abandoned building. The Invid had reached that deep, shattering a pre-Transition frieze on the right wall of the corridor, leaving the blasted remains of doors and the clawmarks of their Hellcats. But several rooms were still intact.
Today, Lantas' part in the assembly went off without anyone else seeing into her personal life, which left her feeling proud. No need to slip again, to clutter this revolution with her problems.
As she headed outside for break time with the rest, Exedore was waiting for her.
He hadn't been in the basement when Lantas had gone in. She couldn't read him, didn't want to, at the moment. Instead she looked to a storage closet, but it was still burned and shredded; hardly the place for a private talk.
Then more were coming down the steps, a trio of male borns in rifles and padding. Lantas' self took less than a second to collect.
"Get inside!" screamed the born in the lead, jerking his neck towards the makeshift classroom.
A short moment of silence. Now Lantas could read Exedore, and he was looking, not angry, not frightened, but cold and sharp, simultaneously hunched and enlarged, like he was ready to study someone and already finding them very wanting. His hands were clasped behind his back.
Lantas had seen Exedore look like that, but never in person. It had been in the videos of the end of the Malcontent period, when he had read out the sentences for Marla Stenik and Jinas Treng.
But even with that expression, Exedore complied, and Lantas followed, along with the other clones who had been in the hallway.
Inside, several clones were kneeling, or had their hands to their mouths, reminding Lantas of how it had all looked before.
A shot went off, but it was only to shatter the teaching board, spraying them with the pieces.
"All guardian and pilot clones, put your weapons on the floor."
Lantas was careful not to let anything show. The media hadn't said that all the clones were being taught to defend themselves. How many non-warriors in this room were armed? If only they had the courage...
The sidearms of the guardian and pilot clones clanked to the floor, where the trio of attackers moved to slide them out of reach with their boots. The whine of metal on tile scraped along Lantas' nerves.
"We just want you to leave," said the leading man again. He was blond with a sharp beard, typical of the average Tirolian. "Get out of this little school, and don't come back. Don't start teaching each other things. Just get out, go home, and we'll take care of you.
"But you won't do that," he said after a moment. "You don't know what's good for you, how everything is set out before we even live.
"Sometimes you have to make people do things. We're going to kill one of you each time-cycle until the senate passes a law that makes it so none of you can ever waste peoples' time with this.
"But first, first, we have to get rid of a sickness, something that we don't want. Your people are gone."
Lantas' mind froze, understanding who they were speaking of.
Exedore had drawn a sidearm from underneath his cape.
"Do leave here," he said, with a tone of slow, sharp disdain. "You cannot blast away change; it was something that Dolza discovered."
The wielder was suddenly sweating and trembling, his companions also still and silent.
They are afraid of him, was the thought that snapped Lantas back to reality.
The leader's left man shrieked and a blast from his gun lanced through Exedore's corresponding shoulder.
Exedore's hand became a claw, dropping the gun, and he fixed them with a blistering look of utter scorn. "I...am...Zentraedi," he wheezed through his teeth, clutching his bad arm.
She must be crazy, right now wondering if he'd ever been physically wounded before. And perhaps they'd been aiming for his heart...
Lantas went to stand between Exedore and the guns, drawing her own small one, dwarfed in comparison to their armaments.
The leader suddenly fell screaming to the side, a smoking hole in his leg. More blasts came around Lantas, and she dropped to a crouch, feeling her skin seared by friendly fire.
Shouts and shots resounded. Lantas fought for consciousness and added her own fire to it, trying to aim with the precision the guardians had taught her, but only to wound.
The attackers staggered back and clutched at their wounds, eyes rolling to the ceiling as if searching for the answer to their failure.
But they recovered and begin to fire, sending the other clones cringing and hiding. After an eternity, new thunder sounded in the corridor, the police finally coming to their aid.
Lantas could finally look to Exedore, who was under the nearest table and watching everything with a glassy-eyed, but still contemptuous, look. Some instinct told Lantas that she should not try to move him, but she went closer instead, slung her own cape around his shoulders, and waited for help.
"I suppose you could consider yourself vindicated."
Lantas prickled at that, even though Exedore said it with a sidelong glance and an open-mouthed smirk.
The impact of the blast had shattered his shoulder and collarbone while blazing through the flesh there, cauterizing it all. Now being properly taken care of, the fragments removed from inside his body, Exedore should suffer no ill effects, but for now he was to remain in the hospital under guard.
Someone, Lantas did not know who (she thought it might have been Cabell, but could have only dreamed that) had requested that her and Exedore's hospital beds be put side by side in this long room full of them.
Their conversation would hardly be private, but since everyone knew about her and the Zentraedi anyway, they should talk. Even if it was of matters only related to themselves, unimportant to the situation.
Around them were a few cries and groans like microphone feedback, but most of the clones were sleeping or sedated. There were severe blast wounds, broken limbs, and also hurt hearts to be cared for by the more nurturing among them.
There would likely be charges for the non-guardians being armed without informing the authorities, and a whole-hearted push to have every Tirolian clone disarmed. The last shreds of the smoke had been dissolved; there would be no one left who thought of Tirolian clones as something akin to domesticated herbivores.
Lantas thought about that, now well-bandaged underneath her loose black hospital robe (the colour not having the Terran connotations). The circumstances, however, were making it hard to think, but she pushed her head above the ocean of drugs and confusion.
Finally she began to talk. "Possibly. But this doesn't change anything, does it? You're still going to say."
"Yes," was his soft reply.
"I still want to know why. Is it just for me? Because, if it is, you can understand the contradiction."
She heard a creak that might have been Exedore leaning back against the pillows. Lantas had looked over at him before, and noticed that instead of the usual hospital robe, he still wore his Haydonite-made uniform, which had somehow retracted the sleeve and glove and chest to let him be tended to.
He said, "On Earth, my blood was called for many times, but I was apart, away from all of it. I see now the truth of my own vulnerability here. I despise myself for saying such a thing, but I think that I did not truly believe in it before."
Lantas looked over to him; Exedore closed his eyes and went on. "But this remains: I would rather fight for you on your side whenever I can, than be sheltered on Earth. I would rather know the events than wait for the communication."
"It wouldn't be cowardly if you left," Lantas said, even though she did not want to start the entire thing again. "I don't ever doubt you. But now you see why. Next time could mean your death."
"I am aware. But my feelings for you are not the only reason. I am no warrior, and never shall be, but this cause is as dear to me as you are. I see my peoples' fate reflected in yours and wish...for things not to be repeated. Or rather, to alleviate this universal conflict since it cannot be eliminated. I wish to do everything that I can."
"You still had no right to act that way towards me. As though my reasoning was not legitimate. Did it ever occur to you that you might not have all the answers?"
"Really? When you were the intellectual among the grunt legion? The first, the oldest? You wouldn't at all have the urge to think you knew things better than your young consort and talk like it?"
"Ah...y-yes. I should have better established my point. We cannot blame newness anymore. I am...quite sorry." He paused again. "Just as I did not appreciate the reality of the situation, so too I did not understand how much it would hurt for you, out of concern for me. In the future I shall...try to be more aware of such things."
"I don't like it," Lantas at last said, after moments of silence. "We opened ourselves up to it, to the pain and vulnerability that we have never had before. Sometimes I've thought I should never have started this."
"I do not think that I wish to cease it," Exedore replied, sounding a bit contrite. "Sometimes I do feel that this is not me, that this is so uncharacteristic. But towards you I feel a tenderness that I never knew I could possess. We...knew that it would be difficult, and I am still prepared to face that difficulty, internal or external."
Lantas felt things start to drain away, warned herself not to be premature. "I know. And perhaps I was afraid of that difficulty. Out of sight..."
"...Out of mind, yes. Though there is the one about absence and the heart."
"That I don't really believe in. But it would be nice." Lantas did smile at the ceiling, felt she could allow what the Humans called "gallows humour". "I just hope that Tiresia is still here when you come back."
Nothing could be solved with just one conflict; there would be others over this, over other things. They were each other's first, and statistics where against them. But Lantas still wanted to keep it as long as she could, to trust that even they were capable.
Four clones died of their wounds in the attack, including Medis and Scarcia. Lantas had felt herself sucked down into darkness again, but she kept enough of a grip on herself that she would try for the light again.
Neither Lantas nor Exedore were called on to make a speech for the funeral. Exedore's left side was still slung and bandaged, but no one on Tirol would have missed the event. He was very pale, and was standing closer to her than usual.
Before the funeral had begun, after there had already been much expressing of grief, Lantas willed herself to keep things clear, to talk.
Exedore: "Sometimes I worry that the entire incident was because of me. Which is a foolishly selfish supposition."
"I think it's supposedly normal," Lantas had replied. "Are you having second thoughts about staying?"
"I am. And...what about you? Would you also wish to leave?"
Lantas nodded her head. "I am afraid. There is too much left to do, and f-for t-them I have to. And you. But I still think of it."
They were both staring at each other. It was Exedore who spoke first, reaching up to put his hand on her shoulder. "But as you said, that is our sacrifice."
Lantas glanced at their clock. "Come on, then, it's time."
They left the apartment together, supporting each other in their quivering steps.
When Exedore was healed, he would have to attend to his duties on Earth, which would include telling them of these incidents, even though being a world away left the Humans disinclined to major intervention.
Someday Lantas would go with Exedore to Earth again, but now she had to stay, and sometime he would come back. This course not make things any easier if what she feared occurred, but it was what she had to choose.