The samohod drove Vilma half-way up the mountain before its engine began to struggle with the slope, coughing up plumes of soot. When the vehicle heaved its last gasoline breath, she abandoned it by the road and continued to the highlands on foot.
By dawn, she reached Slow Eshtyca; the village’s scattered houses were tucked behind hillocks and greeted her with boarded-up windows and yards bereft of livestock. The green fluorescence wafting out of the wells smeared into the salmon pink of the horizon, and Vilma had to squint to make out the girl’s house.
She knocked on the damp wooden door. Quicker than expected, as if somebody stood by waiting for her, the door swung open to reveal an old bearded face.
“Good morning, Mr. Volkov,” she said. “I’m Ambassador—”
“Yes,” the man interrupted. “I got your letter. Come in.”
He ushered Vilma in and shut the door quickly, as if to prevent some of that morning gloom from slipping in alongside the guest.
The house smelled of burnt food and chamomile tea. Mr. Volkov led Vilma to a living room with upholstered chairs on either side of a hand-crafted low table. There was no fire burning in the fireplace. He offered her tea to warm up, which she gladly accepted. When he brought the steaming pot and they poured tea in little porcelain cups and both sipped, she asked about the girl.
“I’m afraid she’s not here,” Mr. Volkov said in a heavily-accented South Slavic.
“She left not a day after your letter.”
“And do you happen to know where she went?”
He brought his cup to his mouth and his eyes scoured the room. “Not a clue.”
Vilma followed his gaze to the rafts of tattered books and floor littered with workshop detritus of little screws and half-bolts and metal filings. She had spent three separate mandates as ambassador to Anglosaxonia, Francia, and even to the Sino-Taiwanese Provinces, so she was well-versed in the craft of diplomacy and, consequently, the art of lying. Something that Mr. Volkov was trying to pull off with a modicum of conviction, but failing miserably. She knew the girl was still in the village of Slow Eshtyca.
“How far could she have gone?”
He hummed, clicked his tongue. “By now, as far downslope as Mrazen, or even in the low plains of Polinia, if she’d found transport.”
“Of course,” she said and sipped. “You do understand, though, that policija will go after her. And policija will find her, as they tend to do, whether in Mrazen or Polinia or even all the way to the shores of the White & Black Seas.”
The man’s eyes widened, but he kept staring at the dregs in his cup. “I wouldn’t expect less from those who govern,” he said through his teeth.
“What would you have us do, Mr. Volkov? We are losing the war.”
It seemed that this level of honesty coming from a government envoy caught him unawares, and a faint smile flickered on his lips. He said, “That’s not what we read in the broadsheets.”
“Mouthpieces for the rulers, propaganda. Shouldn’t be taken so seriously.”
“I didn’t say I did.”
“The Eastern Oblast is in dire straits, and I’m here to get help.”
Wind sighed outside. The wooden walls creaked, as if the house was about to fall apart in the mountain gales, but then the wind relented and the house quieted down again. “I am sorry,” Mr. Volkov said and stood up. “I can’t give you what you’re seeking.”
She watched him, then she too got up. He took the cup from her hand and took the tray to the kitchen, then escorted her to the hallway.
Framed in the windows she could see the all-too-familiar Slow Eshtyca day: the white-tipped grass, the brown slatted roofs, the shawl of fog wrapped around the hovels. An unkind village, unforgiving, resolute.
Which Vilma wasn’t leaving without what she came to claim.
She plucked her coat off the hanger and held it folded over her arm. She eyed the man up and down. “Policija will come after you too. As the young girl’s legal guardian, you are responsible for her actions, and ignoring an order that comes top-down, well—” She shrugged, paused for effect. “I wish you good luck, Mr. Volkov.”
He reddened with anger. “You can’t intimidate me.”
“Don’t think I’m not aware of your activities.”
“What activities? You’re speaking nonsense.”
“Save it for the interrogators.” She put her coat on and opened the door to leave, when a voice came from within the house.
“Wait, wait.” Wood creaked and a trapdoor flung open. The head of a young girl emerged. “Madam Ambassador, wait, please. I’m here.” The girl looked at the old man, who had pinched the bridge of his nose and was shaking his head, and she said, “Don’t send policija after Mr. Volkov. I’m here.”
The way down proved harder for Vilma, the heels of her boots slipping on scree or frosted-over earth. The girl walked ahead of her as if leading the way, as if in a hurry to put this whole affair behind her. She would turn around from time to time to glower at Vilma’s struggle, but Vilma ignored the girl’s icy stares and carried on down, her knees buckling, her feet dancing.
When they got to the samohod, the vehicle wouldn’t start. A quick look under the bonnet revealed an engine gnawed by frost, the cylinders and pistons blackened and winter-stilled.
“Morena take them,” Vilma cursed.
The girl crouched by the side, pretending to be interested in a gnarled root that was sticking out of the frozen ground.
Vilma fiddled with the ice-encrusted pistons and yanked them this way and that and rubbed her gloves on the cylinders until the ice fell away and the vehicle’s engine could start again.
They drove past Mrazen without stopping, the samohod slipping and skidding as snowy roads turned to slush and slush melted to mud. Vilma gripped the juddering wheel with both hands to maintain control over the vehicle, and the girl bounced in the backseat at every swerve, her mouth pursed. When the road leveled out and they reached the lower plains of Shar Mountain, they stopped by a settlement to buy gas to refill the tank.
“Are you going to mope all the way to Spearwit?” Vilma said, screwing the tank lid back on. She disposed of the empty gasoline cannister in a roadside ditch. A soft wind picked up and carried the stench of fuel elsewhere.
But the girl didn’t respond, her first words coming only after they crossed into the northwestern province in which the capital of the Eastern Oblast was ensconced. “I can’t work without my tools,” she said, staring at the row of poplars flanking the road.
“What tools do you need?”
“My adder-subtractors. My mechabacuses.”
“And where are they?”
“Back in Slow Eshtyca. Back home.”
“Well,” Vilma said, kneading the wheel but trying to not show her patience was being tested, “you will have to make-do with what we have.”
They drove on in silence. The poplars thinned out and vegetation grew sparse, the grassfields dry or burnt, and a tarry outline smeared itself on the horizon like a thunderhead that has crouched to the earth. The sun set and soon a black night fell and Spearwit indirectly manifested itself: the air thickened with industrial fumes; glowing rivers and canals rainbow-flecked with effluvia started draining out of that tarry distance like veins; the chug-chugging of the oil derricks reverberated in the car alongside the buzz of the moths, the oil-wasps, the man-magpies from the nest-suburbs; and then suddenly light, ever-brightening, light scorching, light burning.
“Welcome to Spearwit,” Vilma said as she drove into the seething core of gaslight that more resembled a conflagration than a city. “You’ll love it here.”
The city of Spearwit bristled in the night.
A thin film of water covered the blackbrick buildings, cold rainbows gleaming in the raindrops. Nadja had pulled the curtains together, but the city had inveigled itself into the room through the occasional tower-shadow or spire-shadow that flashed on the walls with every explosion like the crooked fingers of a crone. So now she stood by the window and studied what lay out there. Better to see. Better to face this terror rather than have the echoes of the city’s intrusive presence taunt her while she lay dreaming of the mountainside, of the school and her schoolmates, of kind old Mr. Volkov.
In the distance, another white phosphorus shock saturated the brick-and-mortar expanse before dissolving and the cityscape diminished to black again. The protesters. The deserters, the ex-policija, the Gueules cassées, as Mr. Volkov referred to them, all women and men returned disfigured and disillusioned from the battlefields, now bent on bringing the horrors of war closer to home to those who had sent them there as cannon fodder in the first place.
Spiderwebs cast themselves across the sky and were swept away just as quickly, and Nadja hugged herself, straining to not look away. Better to see. Better to get used to this new home.
The minutes and hours of the night passed, counted out by booms and blasts further and further apart, and when the bombs fully died down, the pearly glow of a new dawn replaced their glare.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The ambassador’s voice from behind her. She entered the room, leaving the door wide open.
Nadja said, “It’s too much of everything.”
“Don’t be scared. This is all for show. They’re allowed to bark but not to bite.” The ambassador stood by her at the window, admiring the irregular layout of the paling city, a découpé composition of building on building. “Spearwit is the safest place in the entire Eastern Oblast.” She pulled the curtain shut. “Come now. We have work to do.”
Down a pair of lifts and through corridors bathed in carmine light, the woman brought Nadja to her new workplace.
At the entrance stood a guard to whom the ambassador gave Nadja’s name and village. The she-ezhe unrolled her scroll for consultation and blinked at the scroll and the scroll’s eyes blinked back, shedding dust from their parchment-eyelids; rolling the scroll back up, the guard studied Nadja with her cluster of scleras before stepping aside and gesturing for them to continue through the door.
Pillars shouldered a high ceiling, and among them rows upon rows of workstations and workers manning them, their hands busy with tools she’d never seen before, putting pieces of metal together or splitting them apart in a shower of sparks the color of saltpeter flame, tinkering and constructing something for the war effort. Nobody looked up to acknowledge her presence as she was led past them. Away from these workers and into another pillared hall where men and women of varied races stood before the largest mechanical abacuses Nadja had ever seen, fingers kneading the machines, extorting meaningful calculations out of their copper-and-orgone circuits. On the faces of these computers she saw a weary resignation from which she would’ve deduced the state of the war even without the ambassador’s admission in Mr. Volkov’s house. With the scratching sound of nail on chalkboard, the mechabacuses spat out sheets upon sheets of paper, and the ezhe and man-magpie and human and zmija computers cradled these reports like newborn babies as they emerged from the machines, gingerly transporting them to their desks for further analysis.
The hall after this one housed only mechanical devices, chugging and squirting and hissing, and there in a corner beside one of those non-curlicued pillars was a desk for her. “Here are your tools,” the ambassador said, opening and closing a drawer that contained some hand-held mechabacuses pre-programmed with mathematical functions, a slide rule, and some charts. “And here’s your canvas, and here’s your brush.” Her hand sweeping over a piece of parchment and a pen. “You may start now.”
The computers brought the girl stacks of reports cajoled out of their machines, and the girl flicked through them, her eyes scanning the pages quicker than anyone and sparkling at each spotted pattern in the numbers, and Vilma watched her work from behind the black glass, and she studied the girl’s eyes and the girl’s hand as it moved on the paper as if of its own accord to jot down conclusions drawn out of seemingly aleatory data: latest body counts from the battlefields in Northwest Europa; villages that have fallen to the enemy, and those retaken; coordinates of fronts opening and closing; receipts and summaries of the Oblast’s own military expenditure; intercepted enemy communication, coded, cyphered, re-encoded.
Computers working the night shift pored over the girl’s daily analyses and combed through her proofs as diligently as possible, re-running them through their mechabacuses and studying the output many times over.
When Vilma wasn’t observing the girl and her work, she took part in the diplomatic assault that was carried out hand-in-hand with the war in the trenches. Meetings spilling over into meetings with foreign representatives, or writing letters and lying through her teeth about the Eastern Oblast’s intentions or military progress, all followed by long and draining retrospectives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nights, she went to Malo Bravo, a speakeasy deep in the heart of Spearwit’s bohemian quarter. Her friend, Doctor Olya, was always there, drinking.
“How’s the new one?” Olya asked when Vilma settled in the booth opposite her.
“Same as everybody else at the beginning.” A waiter brought her a vial of rakija. “Pugnacious. Feisty. Scared shitless.”
They toasted. After a discussion about a recent diplomatic quagmire, where the Eastern Oblast had tread a hair-thin line between Germania’s unreasonable demands and the Russian Territories’ characteristic brashness and had narrowly avoided a trade war with either, and a recap of Dr. Olya’s latest research on Mendelian inheritance and blood-trait biology, the doctor asked Vilma about the village. “How did it feel? Going back.”
Vilma shrugged. “I’d forgotten the cold.”
“The cold and the quiet.”
“Can’t remember when last I saw white snow.”
“Ah.” Olya breathed in through her nose, eyes closed, as if she were up there, taking in clean mountain air. When she opened them, she said, “These are strange times, Vilma. Dangerous times. Things no longer unfold the way they used to.” She sighed, then added, “Don’t let the girl out of your sight.”
It came easy to her, as it had always done, this picking out little clues and half-patterns from jumbled numbers and facts, and she enjoyed it despite herself, despite knowing her work was being repurposed, despite the burning hatred she felt for everyone around her—still she couldn’t prevent that jolt of satisfaction, a pleasant respite like caramel melting in the mouth, whenever she unearthed a new connection between two seemingly unrelated data points.
Width of enemy artillery on northern fronts versus shell size in the south; troop allocation across the continent as related to their generals’ attack plans; but also: the changes in the hours of the ambassador’s visits to her workplace correlated with the ambassador’s mood shifts; the times guards were posted at the door of her room, and how that was linked to the raucousness of the city outside; the food she was given for dinner, varying in taste and quantity based on the amount of parchments of work she’d produced that day; the dinner nights on which the ambassador joined her and studied her every move and word, nights on which she learned she had to be very prudent around this woman, for whom she had to put on a different face and try to not let any weakness show. She abhorred these nights and wished them to end quicker and she barely chewed her food and swallowed it whole so she could go to bed and dream of anything but this horrible city, this vast and all-encompassing prison.
“Keep working,” computers would say under their breath when they’d come to pick up reports from her desk. “Keep chugging.” Ironically, with half a heart. And they would stare daggers at her as if it was her fault they had to work so late. Their own supervisors never noticed.
Some, meaner than others, lingered for longer around her desk, muttering insults of any sort out of pure spite, or jealousy, or to vent their frustration somehow, or to break her and make their day shorter, Nadja could never quite figure out which.
“Bastard child,” one she-ezhe would always tell her, “fake girl, grown thing.” Taking her time when picking up the reports so as to manage and throw as many insults as possible at Nadja.
But their words never harmed her. She produced parchment after parchment scrawled over with equations or coordinates or instructions for the military, and her hand hurt but she kept at it throughout the day, and all invective slid off her hardened skin, because she was feeling like she was doing what she was born to do.
And after each exhausting day’s work, more than anything it was this odd feeling that kept her awake.
What was it about helping these wretched people that made her feel so good? Why was she enjoying the work? She couldn’t bring herself to understand, and her mind tortured her, thought devouring thought. Was it just because she was good at what she did? If so, could she not separate the joy and beauty of the work itself and those for whom it was performed?
She tossed in bed and gripped the pillow and sometimes cried, blaming herself not only for helping the government but for taking pleasure in it.
She fell asleep pleading for Mr. Volkov to forgive her.
The flat leaf of the plant lay on Vilma’s hand. She caressed its glossy surface, slick and slippery, designed to let raindrops slide down from one leaf to another in the plant’s lush spiral structure all the way to the earth and the plant’s roots.
“We can grow them closer together,” Olya said, “and each takes care of herself, not intruding, producing twice as much fruit.”
On racks behind translucent sheets were arrayed the many precursors to the plant Vilma held here, the evolutionary dead-ends and aborted half-steps that had emerged as the doctor and her team cozened vegetation to grow according to the Oblast’s needs. Vilma let the leaf fall back into its optimal position.
“We already have fields and fields,” Olya said, “feeding hungry mouths.”
They moved away from the terraria.
“I wish the results of my work were this obvious.”
“And I wish mine were less so, sometimes.”
“I can’t as easily see irregularities, Olya, can’t so obviously measure the output of my twisted little plant.”
At this the doctor smiled. “True, but that’s because she’s still growing. Give her time. Give yourself time. She will develop and you will learn and things will become more apparent.”
Before Vilma went back to the Ministry, they had lunch at the cafeteria, exotic imported food that was neither developed nor grown in a laboratory.
Nadja worked entire days to fill out pages of reports.
Nighttime, before drifting off to a light and fragile sleep, she’d count the booms from the bombs of the protesters. Thirty-seven. She was getting used to the city, in her own way. Fifty-nine. No more flinching or tossing in bed, but just lying there like in a coffin, seeing the echoes of the phosphorus flashes in the back of her eyelids. Eighty-eight. Often, she wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or not. Hundred and one. And in the mornings, above all, it was the odd and incongruous quiet that woke her up.
And then it was back to work, back to what she loved doing but hated having done.
“Good work yesterday,” the mean she-ezhe computer told her one afternoon, picking up a second stack of parchments from Nadja’s desk. It was the first time she’d spoken gently to Nadja, and the tone of her voice combined with the way her many eyes darted shyly across the room caught Nadja’s attention.
She braced for harsh words but nothing more came. Where were the insults? What had changed?
Initially, Nadja thought this was yet another passive-aggressive way to annoy her, with the computers being nice to her one day and then mean the next in a twisted cycle of bullying, but when they didn’t change for days and days, Nadja started picking out other details in their behavior.
They were too comfortable, Nadja realized, too confident in Nadja’s work.
They were getting careless.
Computers re-checked her work, but these people were as tired and overworked as her, and as their confidence in her output grew, they became sloppy. They contented themselves with a glance instead of a thorough read-through, and Nadja started seeing this in the speed at which they worked, in their clumsy and ever-thankful demeanor at each of Nadja’s produced reports.
“Brilliant work,” they would lie. “Undisprovable.”
And thus one night out of the guilt and the tears, another pattern emerged.
A meta-pattern, anti-pattern, one that once discovered gave her a sense of satisfaction above all others combined. She wiped away tears and smiled. She buried her face in the pillow so the guards posted at her door wouldn’t hear her laughing.
She thanked Mr. Volkov for teaching her, for raising her well. And she whispered a promise to him. She would make up for the bad she’d done.
Because Nadja realized that she could start slipping little mistakes in her reports, small falsehoods in measured doses in the analyses, and these would go unnoticed and unpunished, and those tasked with overseeing her work would remain as oblivious as ever.
It was weeks before she saw first results of her sabotage.
Eastern Oblast troops, misled by a plethora of tiny untruths that over time had coalesced into a deadly lie, had attacked a village in Upper Silesia, a Potemkin settlement, a hollow and pointless target that had ended up being a waste of resources and lives.
Mood shifted instantaneously in the pillared halls.
Her overseers turned tight-lipped and taciturn. The ambassador eyed her with suspicion during her frequent visits, asking her if she was doing well, if she was feeling healthy and able to work, and Nadja merely nodded, adjusting her behavior according to the responses she got from the woman, pretending she had no clue anything had changed.
She worked diligently as before to regain trust, and when sufficient time passed and her overseers’ focus dropped somewhat again, armed with the knowledge that her plan might work out after all, she sprinkled her work with more erroneous statements, this time taking greater care and with more subtlety than before, and she slowly but surely handed over the advantage in the war to the enemy.
The girl seemed to be sleeping better now, but her work was not yet up to par.
Vilma broached the matter during one of their awkward lunches, and the girl reluctantly agreed, saying she had a hard time adjusting to her new home, and she admitted that despite her desires and yes, even stubbornness, spending entire days locked inside her room was unhealthy and maybe somewhat counterproductive. She supposed she had to familiarize herself with the city if she was to work for it with her whole heart.
So the following morning, before sending her off to her workplace, Vilma took the girl out for a stroll.
Eyes trained on cobbled streets as if refusing to take in the city, the girl walked alongside Vilma through the gubernatorial quarter, with Vilma pointing out windows to rooms of this politician who slept with that minister, or that admiral who plotted actively against this major, and so on, overlaying a map of secrets and hearsay over the city to make the walk more interesting for the girl’s sake as much as hers, and the girl started listening and even, occasionally, looking up.
Eventually these walks turned into a morning ritual, their strolls extending beyond the quarter of the elites to the Ribben Market or on some days all the way to forest Sina, and the girl’s mood lifted and the girl’s work improved, and Vilma felt that maybe the girl was growing on her and that maybe she had started growing on the girl too.
Quarter by quarter they explored the city together.
“I wasn’t born here either,” Vilma admitted one day. They passed by a zmija temple ensconced between two blackbrick residential buildings, the temple’s green tile roof shimmering in the morning sun like newly-shed skin. “But I learned to like it here, and eventually I learned to love the city.”
They crossed a bridge into another neighborhood. The river beneath them was drying out; this time of the year only thick tar trickled soundlessly through the canal.
“I doubt I could,” the girl said.
“But you could try.”
“I could try.”
They walked on broken sidewalks until they crossed another bridge and reached a less destitute quarter, then they cut through a park and were back at the gubernatorial quarter.
“Spearwit is many-faced,” Vilma said. “If you don’t like one, be sure to keep your eyes peeled and it will show you another.” She ushered the girl inside the building of the ministry. “Took me time to see that.”
Down the lifts and through the secret corridors beneath the ministry, she took the girl back to her workplace.
“I only see Spearwit’s mornings.”
They’d stopped for breakfast at Vilma’s most-frequented bakery. Pigeons picked at the crumbs between the cobbles, and a bright morning sun reddened their feathers.
Vilma thought about it for a moment, then said, “Learn to like the city’s morning before you learn to like its night.”
“I am scared of it.”
The girl shook her head. “The night that comes in through my window. How can I trust these mornings if night scares me?”
Vilma considered this for a few days, then decided not to squander any progress they’d made, and one evening she stopped by the girl’s desk and took her out for a walk.
The sky was a moonless dark. Blackbrick buildings, dissolved into the night, jumped at them with a gaslight wink of a window, the jarring sound of domestic disturbance, a pouted terrace, flap of drying clothes on balcony — but only when they were right there, in front of the building — then they’d pass by, and the building would melt into the night again.
“Is that them?” the girl asked, pointing in the distance where the sky crackled.
“Don’t shiver. Don’t be scared.”
“I’m not scared.” But then a big boom came and the girl gripped Vilma’s dress.
Vilma said, “Let’s go back.”
“No,” the girl said. “I have to see. I have to face this fear.”
And they walked through dark alleys and crossed crumbling bridges toward the noise and light that was the gathering of the deserters and traitors.
They stopped at a respectable distance and watched the explosions in the sky. Vilma remembered her first days in this city, those weeks and months of anguish and growth and of missing the mountainside, and remembered how times were calmer back then despite the war that had been going on for more than a decade, and she remembered how she didn’t really have anybody to cling to, to look up to for guidance, and how long and boring her days were with nothing to occupy her time but those lessons at the ministry from dawn till night, and not even booms in the skies of Spearwit to rouse her from her nightmares.
When she tore her eyes off the troubled sky, she saw the girl was gone.
The phosphorus streaks rifled through the sky like thieving hands.
Nadja followed the procession of Gueules cassées out onto a large alley flanked by towering slabs of cement with windows dappled by amber gaslight. Above the throng hovered a flock of man-magpies with mangled black-and-white bodies, wings punctured or half-flapping, tails cut short or fully ripped out, their screeches and croaks echoing the protesters’ taunts for the policija. A human man saw her and said, “What are you doing here, kid?”
“Getting away,” she said.
The man glanced back toward the riot squadron, then laughed and stopped walking just enough to leave an opening for her to slip through and join the crowd. The river of people carried her away. The stench of naphtha from the city’s canals mixed in with the phosphorus stink of the bombs. Nadja pinched her nose.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” The man mimicked her. “Morena take them,” he said nasally and laughed. He stank too, unwashed and gruff-sounding, his accent a metropolitan South Slavic far removed from Slow Eshtyca’s mountain lilt, but somehow he was the first person Nadja liked in this city. She stuck close to him as the crowd shuffled along the alleys of Spearwit.
The policija squadron, mainly comprised of gruff and stocky he-ezhes with spikes protruding out of their gear and manifold eyes covered with a layer of protective plastic, marched in step with the protesters.
“Stay close,” the man said and Nadja obeyed. “Where are you getting away to, eh?”
“The mountains,” she said. “Slow Eshtyca.”
The man gave her a sidelong glance. He’d probably never heard of her village. “Okay, kid. Wherever it is you need to go, go.” He laughed.
“My village is far up Shar Mountain. I don’t have any way to get there.” The crowd reached a square and spread out, and the riot policija moved to encircle them.
“Why don’t you drop this and go back to your parents? Things’ll get messy here.”
She turned to him. Explosions painted the sky white. “My home is there,” she hissed. “They took me from my home and brought me here.”
She pointed in the general direction of the riot policija. “Them. All of them.” Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Morena, kid,” the man said, “you’re not joking.” He looked around, bit his lip, and then took Nadja by the hand and led her through the throng. He pushed other Gueules cassées aside, elbowing them out the way, and he took her out of the crowd and out of the square and through a gap in the incomplete ring of riot policija, leading her away from the fray to the relative safety of a quiet side-street. He stopped at a corner and put his hands on Nadja’s shoulders. “Alright, kid,” he said. “Tell me everything.”
The man let her sleep over in his home that night, and his he-zmija partner made chicken broth for the whole family, and their kids, who were half-saurian and younger than her by a few years, shared their bed with her.
The following day the man was out to work and when he returned, he told her he’d procured her a way out of Spearwit. False identity papers and a train ticket to Mrazen, from where, he explained, she would have to find her way back by bus or on foot or in some good Samaritan’s samohod. “This village,” the man said, and by the tone of his voice she knew he’d asked around about it, “is no ordinary mountain settlement, is it?”
She hugged her knees.
The man said, “Are you aware?”
Nadja remained silent. The man looked like he had a thousand questions for her, but mercifully kept them to himself. He patted her on the shoulder, then pulled the hand back as if suddenly remembering he should be afraid of the touch. “The one who takes care of you is one of the good ones, isn’t he? One of ours?” He put his hands back in the pockets of his overalls. “Get some rest. Your train leaves at dawn.”
She slept in his kids’ bed again that night, intermittently, waking up in-between short bursts of nightmares of bombs and policija and the ambassador chasing after her, and when the man tiptoed into the room in the middle of the night to rouse her from sleep she was already up and ready to go.
Every single person in Spearwit working for the policija carried a folded-up sketch of the young girl’s likeness in their pocket, comparing it to girls on the street, to ones in people’s homes during random and unannounced checks, to those traveling in and out of the city.
Vilma arranged matters so she got all reports from the policija. She wanted to be the first to find the girl. The girl was her responsibility and damned if she wasn’t going to drag her back to her workplace. In the meantime, she’d instructed the computers to treat all of the girl’s output from the past months with distrust and to go over every single parameter and follow the numbers to every last conclusion, rewriting history if need be.
She spent the night in Doctor Olya’s bed, but even alcohol and love-making weren’t going to soothe her thinning nerves.
“What are we missing?” Vilma said in the middle of the night, stroking Olya’s hair.
“Perspective, perhaps,” Olya said. “Or humility.”
“Or strength.” She sighed. “I was weak to this brat. She managed to play me.”
“She reminded you of you, and so you lost your perspective.” Olya gave her a kiss on the cheek and turned to sleep.
In the morning when the doctor had already left for her laboratory, a telegram reached Vilma at Olya’s apartment.
Policija had found the girl.
The train lay still at the penultimate station before Spearwit ended and the provinces began, surrounded by armed policija.
Inhabitants of the man-magpie nest-suburbs flocked to watch from the safety of the smoggy skies. Passengers poked their heads out the windows and were chastised by policija who banged their batons on the carriages of the train. “Back in. Close the window shut. No gawking. No moving,” and so on they shouted while Ambassador Vilma made her way through the throng.
“Where is she?” she asked the highest-ranking officer on the premises.
“Inside, Madam.” The officer pointed with her baton rather uselessly at the train. “Locked and guarded in the dining car.”
She climbed inside the train.
The girl was sitting at a booth, alone. She was staring out the window at the hazy outline of the city she’d attempted to leave.
“Why don’t we stop this right now,” Vilma said, “and go back home.”
“That’s where I was headed.”
“We have work to do.”
“My work is done.” And the girl crossed her arms and furrowed her brow.
Rage bubbled up inside Vilma. “We grow you,” she spat out. “You weren’t born but grown. And you should thank us for that, because unlike the rest of those aimless people outside, you were raised with a purpose. You are a pattern recognizer. And a perfect one to boot. So why don’t you wise up and embrace that?”
Tears gleamed in the girl’s eyes. She turned to face Vilma and wiped her face with a sleeve. “You speak like somebody who wants to believe what she’s saying,” she said. “But you don’t. With all your heart you want to, but you don’t.”
“Don’t tell me what I believe or don’t believe.”
“You too were grown, weren’t you? You too come from Slow Eshtyca. Bred a perfect manipulator, a perfect liar—”
“You little chort.”
“—but there are cracks in you. Because you can’t fool me. You can’t lie to me. You can’t speak your way to my soul.”
“You are just a little girl.”
“And yet you can’t get to me.” Tears now rolled down the girl’s cheeks. “You can’t get in here.” She tapped her chest, her heart. “It’s a failure. This programme of yours is a failure. Slow Eshtyca is nothing more than an ordinary village up in the mountains. Nothing more than my home. And your programme can’t take that away from me.”
Vilma proffered a hand. “Come with me willingly or be dragged back. Continue your work. I want the real results.”
“You have them.” She shook her head. “You have the parchments. I was a good worker. It doesn’t matter which outcome you’ve seen.”
“Don’t you see? Spearwit wins. I did my best, I really did, but you win either way.”
“We are losing.”
“The war,” she said. “After which the city and the Oblast will be rebuilt and you will come back stronger than ever. I was wrong. I thought if you lose, you are gone, and Spearwit is gone, and you and your kind are gone. And me and my schoolmates and Mr. Volkov and the Gueules cassées will be free. But no.” Again, she shook her head. “You win either way because it doesn’t matter if it’s called the Eastern Oblast or something else, you win, your kind wins. The strong only get stronger.”
The ambassador’s face creased up with little twitches and tics indicative of a fierce mental struggle while she internalized what she’d heard, and for a moment Nadja thought she was about to lunge at her, but then the ambassador took a deep breath and exhaled loudly and nodded, eyes closed, to herself.
The woman turned and stepped out of the diner without another word or glance at Nadja.
There was commotion outside. Policija ran about. Orders were shouted. Wings of man-magpies flapped. And the engine of the locomotive creaked, and a steam whistle sounded.
Slowly, the train started moving again.
About the Author
Damien Krsteski is a software engineer and science-fiction author. His stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Metaphorosis, Mithila Review, The Future Fire, and others. He lives and works in Berlin.