Celestial Station #1A
Celestial Station #1A, Korom’s Might, was situated on a stray asteroid that orbited Mir on an eccentric, elliptical orbit that made it a poor candidate for a moon. The asteroid was a peculiar shape, bearing a deep crater on one side, where the station was nestled like a gem in its setting. Above it, the forcefield that kept the station’s atmosphere in and the aether of the celestial abyss out shimmered in the rays of the sun-star Ain. Around the crater’s perimeter gigantic, gravity-generating, runic columns stood like silent sentinels and their inscriptions shimmered a baleful blue, just barely brighter than the artificial daylight inside the forcefield dome. On clear nights, one could sometimes see the station’s glow from Mir.
The station had been established by the Imperia Gromada Dobra Ormaja (usually referred to as the Orm) but was now independent, self-governing, trading the precious minerals extracted from the asteroid for food and water from the Orm’s enemies. It tended to attract those with something to hide or someone to flee from.
Anzu Menelik was neither.
Anzu was looking for someone.
His three-year-old daughter disappeared from his side down on Mir, in the little hamlet of Vanja’s Bones, not far from Svet-Dmitrin.
Anzu and his daughter, Kinneret, were only there for a few days before she went missing. Anzu had turned the whole hamlet upside-down, but found no trace of her there, nor did the scryer he had hired pick up traces of her aura in the forests around Vanja’s Bones. He was now up on Korom’s Might in a last desperate gambit to find her, following a tip from a retired Navigator, who’d allegedly seen a small, dark-skinned girl with hair like a dandelion puff climb aboard a celestial dirigible heading for Korom’s Might.
It had been fifteen days – almost two octets – since Kinneret had gone missing and Anzu was starting to lose hope – which might have explained why he was currently in a rented room with a man whose name he couldn’t quite hold on to.
The young man in question was snoring now, but Anzu couldn’t sleep. He sat on the windowsill in his shift, binder and stockings and smoked his fifth cigarette of the hour, trying to steady his nerves. They refused to be steadied. Anzu chewed on the end of his cigarette, too lazy to get his cigarette holder from his valise. He stared blankly at the peeling wallpaper on the wall opposite him. It had once borne a jaunty pattern of what looked like stylised, prancing goats and had been either a bright green or a very acidic blue. Now it was faded to almost grey and hanging off the wall in wide strips. Anzu kept looking at it, trying to discern a pattern to the goats and pondered his next move.
He did not have many choices. He could go back to Vanja’s Bones and investigate the nearby expanse of the wastelands that had engulfed most land around Svet-Dmitrin since the Cataclysm. He could stay here and search again, almost certainly in vain, for Kinneret. He had no other leads.
He had seen no glimpse of her, had had no soothing true-dream to lead him to where she now dwelt. He still found himself talking to her, when they passed landmarks and when they saw odd things and when he was cooking or putting on makeup. He woke up in the mornings and looked for her beside him and cried when he found nothing.
A treacherous, filthy thought was circling his brain – maybe she’s gone for good. He chose not to give that thought room to grow.
He smoked his cigarette down to a lipstick-stained stub, tossed it out the window and got up off the windowsill. The young man that had been his night’s companion turned over in his sleep and snorted. Anzu rolled his eyes.
He wrote a friendly but brief note to the man in exquisite handwriting, put it on the bedside table and got dressed. Adjusting his binder until he was certain his chest was flat turned out to be tricky – he was a little tipsy still. He was just about to slip out of the room, valise in hand, fur stole draped on his shoulders, when the young man on the bed stirred and sat up.
“Mpph? Anja?” he said and Anzu swore under his breath, turning it hastily into a cough.
“Yes, darling?” he said, crisply. The man blinked at him, blearily.
“Where’re you going?” he said, a little helplessly. Anzu’s heart gave a lurch and he sighed.
“Back to my room, dearest,” he said, as mildly as he could. It was a lie. He could not afford a room. “I’m sorry, it’s not that … you were great, but I …” he sighed again and rubbed his face with his free hand, trying to soothe his suddenly jangling nerves. He hated to explain himself. “I wasn’t looking for anything remotely long-term, sweetness.”
“Oh,” said the man, sounding disappointed. “Y’know, I hoped–“
“I know,” Anzu said, heavily. “Look, ah. Maybe some other time?” He gave a slightly strained smile. The man on the bed seemed mollified, though even Anzu could tell he was disappointed.
“Sure,” said the man, meekly and Anzu blew him a kiss.
“Sleep well, darling,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you in a few days.” And with that, he slipped out the door and closed it behind him, as firmly as he could manage without quite banging it. He regretted it a little, but given that he hadn’t quite held on to the man’s name during their exertions, maybe it was for the best. He sighed, deeply, an ache settling in his heart.
“I am too sober for this idiocy,” he announced to the corridor and stomped off down the stairs, to the poky hotel bar.
The place was deserted at this late hour, with only a sleepy bartender – Anzu seemed to recall her name was Oyuun – rearranging bottles on the shelves behind the bar. She nodded a greeting to him and went back to her task. She was a tall, statuesque woman who’d once been a general in the Ulsaabarat Khanlig’s army, but she’d lost a leg in their most recent war against the Orm. Anzu had learnt this while she’d served him drinks earlier in the evening – the bar had been deserted for most of the day and Oyuun must have been lonely.
Anzu sat down at the bar and waved at Oyuun. She put the glass she’d been cleaning down on the counter and approached him, wiping her hands with the dishrag. She looked rather happy to see him, though Anzu could never be sure he was reading people’s expressions right.
“Evening, Anzu,” she chirped to him, in accented Ormish. Anzu bowed his head to her.
“Evening, dearest,” he replied, in the same language. It was far from his preference to speak the language of Raimut’s ancestors, but Oyuun did not speak either of Anzu’s mother tongues. “Have you got any of that Chervey vodka left? It was quite … bracing.” He gave her his most charming smile, showing off the gap between his top front teeth.
“What, had a spat with your new friend?” said Oyuun, grinning and Anzu’s smile faltered.
“Not as such,” he said, losing some of his put-on cheer. “We, just … ah. Agreed to part ways after getting what we wanted from each other.”
“Harsh,” said Oyuun. “Didn’t take you for a cold heart-breaker.” She winked at him and Anzu laughed. Oyuun put a shot glass full of clear liquid in front of him.
“To your health?” she said. “Or to good fortune?”
“To some peace and quiet, dearest,” Anzu said, and shook his head. He downed the vodka in one gulp, coughed as it hit the back of his throat and gagged at the burning sensation. Tears came up to his eyes.
“Eurgh,” he said, as Oyuun laughed at him. “Well, ah. I did ask for it because it was bracing.”
Footsteps on the filthy carpet of the bar made his pointy ears twitch. A familiar voice said, in the language of the Vodastoj, “‘Scuse me. Sorry for interrupting, but … may I buy you a drink, Sudar?”
He looked around and saw a great iceberg of a woman approach, clad in a shocking red dress, a very familiar fur stole and several strings of pearls. She was at least a head taller than Anzu, with a full figure and full shoulders, her brown arms the arms of a factory girl used to wrangling machinery, anti-magic bracers of jade ringing her wrists. A Spirit eye glowed a gentle amber in the middle of her high forehead and her single-lidded, narrow eyes, the same softly glowing amber as her Spirit eye, were ringed with kohl. Her lips were painted to match the crimson glare of her dress.
There was something naggingly familiar about her and her sonorous voice. Anzu stared at her and she looked back, a small grin on her face and a sparkle in her eye. She had recognised him, that much was clear.
Then it clicked and he realised who she was. His mouth sagged open as he tried to process it. She smiled at him and reached out to tap the tip of his nose, an old gesture of affection between the two of them. That broke the spell.
“Sl–” began Anzu and then shook his head. “No, you must’ve … you must’ve changed your name, darling. Ah. What’s your name?”
“Mogila,” she said, promptly and her smile softened, warmed. “It’s good to see you, Anja.”
“Mogila,” he said, softly. “I–” he stopped, closed his mouth with a click of his teeth and shook his head. He did not know where to begin.
“Mogila–” he began and cut off, the words lost in a mire of emotion.
“Yes?” she said, raising a perfectly-plucked eyebrow at him.
“I’m sorry and … I …” Anzu began, then glanced back at Oyuun, who was feigning disinterest as she cleaned an already pristine champagne glass. Her long ears were perked up. “I think we should have this conversation in private, dearest.”
Mogila smirked and nodded to Oyuun.
“Give us a bottle of … oooh, I think we should go with something fancy,” she said. “Got any foreign shit? Give us a bottle of whatever’s the most expensive and not a wine.” She smiled and winked. Oyuun rolled her eyes, but fetched a bottle of amber liquid from under the counter. The label was in an unfamiliar script.
“Have this,” Oyuun said. “From very far away.” She squinted at the label. “Writing looks Avish. I think this is our last bottle. The guy who sold the crate to me called it whisky.”
“Fantastic!” said Mogila, snatching up the bottle. “It’ll do very nicely. Put it on my tab, Sudara.” She took Anzu’s elbow and herded him away from the bar, towards the corridor leading to the broken-down elevator and the staircase. “C’mon, Anja. I’ve got a room.”
Mogila’s room was a little tidier than the room Anzu had just left, but the wallpaper was still faded and peeling and the air was dusty. Anzu perched himself on the sole chair and Mogila flopped down on the bed, holding the bottle of whisky. The mattress gave a protesting creak.
They looked at each other for a very long time, both avoiding making eye contact. Neither would look away until Anzu sneezed.
“You know,” said Mogila, once the silence had shattered, “you can call me Gilja, if you want–“
Anzu felt his throat constrict. Tears once again came to his eyes – before him sat his erstwhile lover, the other parent of his child and she sat before him as a woman, a namekiller, transgender like him, offering him their old, easy intimacy back. It was almost too much to bear. He felt himself grow dizzy.
“Darling,” he said, softly, “if I’m still Anja to you, you’re Gilja to me.” Mogila sat up and leaned forward, the bottle slipping from her fingers onto the bed.
“Anjushka–” she began and then her voice broke up into sobs. “Oh god. Oh my sweet Lady of the dark waters, Anja.”
Anzu got up off the chair so fast that he knocked it to the ground. He rushed to join Mogila on the bed and put his arms around her.
“Don’t–” he said, hoarsely. “Don’t cry. Please, darling, don’t cry. I’m … I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left without a word. I’m sorry I ran. I was so scared … so scared of hurting you … of … of being like him–“
“Anja,” said Mogila, her voice shaking. Kohl and mascara were running down her cheeks with the tears. “Anja, you could never–“
“I could, darling,” said Anzu, softly. “That’s the worst thing, my dove, I really, really could.” He hid his face in his hands, but Mogila gently pried his hands away from his face. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead, then leaned away and wiped at the lipstick print she left behind with the heel of her hand.
“You are not Raimut Hellewege,” she said, firmly. “For one thing, you know what remorse is.”
Anzu gave a choked sob, a faint noise of overwhelmed gratitude. Mogila reached out and stroked his close-cropped hair, running her fingers through the stiff, minute curls.
“I should not have left,” he said. “But … but …” he looked up at Mogila, making eye contact even though it was painful and bizarre to look into another’s eye. The Spirit that threaded through all his being rebelled at such rudimentary, Fleshy tactics. “I … darling, I was … you’d …” he swallowed and looked down at his hands. “You’d knocked me up,” he mumbled. “I couldn’t … I couldn’t face you–“
Mogila’s mouth turned into an O of surprise and shock. Her eyes went wide. She took Anzu by both shoulders, her grip firm and said, “did you keep it?” her tone anxious, her voice hoarse.
“Yes,” Anzu said. “I … I kept her. Her name is Kinneret.”
Mogila let go of him and clasped her hands to her face, rocking back and forth.
“I have a kid,” she said, into her hands. “I have a kid. I have a daughter.”
“Ah,” said Anzu and gave a nervous laugh. “Darling, there’s … there’s a small problem …”
“What? You aren’t sure she’s mine?” said Mogila, grinning and Anzu shook his head.
“I never strayed from you,” he said, sternly. “But … ah. I … I lost her.”
“You what,” said Mogila, her voice suddenly low and dangerous. “You fucking– you lost our daughter!” She lurched forward, getting up off the bed in one raging motion. She strode over to the window, her shoulders heaving. Anzu cringed back, startled in a most unpleasant way. Mogila had always been a gentle giant when they had been together.
“Darling, I’m … I’m sorry!” he cried, his voice getting high and nervous. “She … she slipped out of my sight down in Vanja’s Bones and …”
“Vanja’s Bones?” Mogila said and turned around, her long, black hair swinging like a cloak. “The revolutionary outpost?”
Anzu nodded, mutely. He hugged himself and moved forward again, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed. Mogila came closer again, looking calmer. Her eyes were wide and filling with tears.
“I was running messages for the Union,” Anzu murmured. “And the Red Front … and … they wanted me to leave Svet-Dmitrin, for a few weeks, to lie low and she … I lost track of her somehow, I … I …” the tears came back and he slumped forward, keening in despair. “I’m sorry, Gilja, I’m sorry. I …”
Mogila snorted in anger and stared out the window, drumming her fingers on the windowsill. Her shoulders heaved.
“I’m sorry,” Anzu repeated. “I swear on my life, I’m–“
“Shut up,” Mogila said, heavily, her shoulders slumping. “You … you lost her.”
“Yes,” Anzu said, in a small and defeated voice and something inside Mogila must’ve softened, because she turned around, the mask of anger upon her face cracking. Her mouth contorted and she shook her head. Anzu kept sobbing. They remained still like a tableau and then Mogila sighed and came closer. She put a gentle and heavy arm on Anzu’s shoulder. He raised his head and met her eye, briefly, before glancing down again. He could barely see through tears. His nose was stuffed up and he was breathing through his mouth.
Mogila sighed and sat down beside him, putting her arm around him. He sat up and leaned against her side, pressing himself close. They sat like that for a while, before Anzu pushed her away.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I’m so sorry, I–“
“Shut up,” said Mogila, but gently. “Why are you on Korom’s Might, if she disappeared in Vanja’s Bones?”
“A Navigator told me they’d seen her get on a dirigible to here,” said Anzu. “I mean … as far as Navigators can see anything …”
“I suppose their precog means a Navigator’s good to trust on shit like that,” she said and shook her head. “Oh, Anja. How are we going to get out of this mess?”
“I don’t know,” said Anzu, sadly. “I really– I really don’t know, dearest.” He bit his lip, wringing his hands. A second later, he tasted blood on his tongue and slightly relaxed his jaw. Mogila winced and reached out to wipe away the bead of blood from his chin.
“Don’t,” she said, softly. “Don’t– don’t start that again, Anja. It doesn’t help anyone. Least of all you.” Anzu looked away, hiding his face.
Mogila sighed and drummed her fingers on Anzu’s collarbone, lost in thought. Finally, she said, “you know, I’ve got a friend and– well, you’ll see. Tomorrow we’ll go see him and look for her. But,” she looked down her snub nose at him, “you gotta sleep. And me too. You have a room?”
Anzu shook his head and Mogila said, “well, I suppose you can stay here–“
“I can take the floor–” Anzu began but Mogila cut him off with a snort.
“No,” she said. “We were fucking for how many years? We can share a bed.”
“No,” said Anzu, the word almost getting stuck in his throat. “At least … I didn’t think you’d want to–“
“Yeah, no, not like that,” said Mogila, grinning. It was a little awkward and sheepish, an expression that looked alien on her. “We can’t resume what we had, not after how it ended and, er,” she looked down at her shoes and coughed. “I’m only into girls, these days. Sorry, Anja.”
“Oh,” said Anzu and laughed. “Well, if I’ve been disqualified from sex, I suppose we can share a bed without it being, ah. More than a little awkward.”
“Just don’t be a blanket hog,” said Mogila and winked at him. Anzu laughed again and patted her arm.
“I’ll try, darling,” he said and gave her his most charming smile. She grinned back and tapped the tip of his crooked nose again, lightly, like a cat batting at a piece of string. Anzu caught her hand in his and squeezed it, gently.
“I’m … I’m glad to see you again, sweetness,” he said and got choked up again, tears starting to spill. Mogila shushed him and brushed the tears away with a careful hand.
“Hush,” she said. “It’s okay. There’s no need to cry.” Anzu nodded, mutely.
Mogila reached behind her and picked up the bottle of whisky again, hefting it in her hand. She set it down on the water-stained bedside table and tapped the stopper twice.
“Tomorrow evening,” she said. “We’ll get drunk on this shit and tell each other about what we’ve been doing. Then we can cry. Now we have to sleep and in the morning, we have to look for your– for our kid. Okay?”
Anzu nodded. Mogila sighed, heavily and got up. She threw off her fur stole and tossed it over the rickety chair that stood three meters away. Anzu grinned at her accuracy.
“Er, I do have to ask, dearest,” he said. “Is that my fur stole?”
“It was!” Mogila said, smirking. “Now it’s mine. You’ve got too many as is.” Anzu pouted, but it lasted all of five seconds before he burst out laughing. There was a faint hysterical note to it. He got up off the bed and shrugged off his fur stole and suit jacket, then started the laborious process of undressing. Mogila, half-out of her dress, looked around at him, her expression thoughtful.
“You haven’t gotten your tits cut off yet,” she said. Anzu bit his lip.
“No, I haven’t,” he said, softly. “I haven’t had the money.”
“And you stopped wearing Hellewege’s ring ’round your neck,” she added, thoughtfully. “That’s good.”
“Like I said, darling,” Anzu said, smirking. “I haven’t had a lot of money, these past few years. I, ah, pawned the damned thing a few months back. It was that or let Kinneret starve and …” he cut off, sighing. “I couldn’t …”
“I’m glad,” said Mogila and when he gave her an affronted look, she added, “I’m glad you have something that matters more than your memories of that bastard.” Anzu looked away and concentrated on taking off the many rings and bracelets that adorned his delicate wrists and hands. His heart sunk into his heels in anticipation of a well-worn and painful argument.
“You know,” she said. “You really gotta start moving on. He’s gone. He’s not going to hurt you any more.”
Anzu looked up sharply and said, his tone crisp and cold as the first frosts of winter, “dearest. He … he was my life. You … you can’t even begin to imagine! So, ah– don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather you shut the hell up about this.”
Mogila looked startled, but only for a moment.
“‘S nice to see you’ve got your bite, still,” she told the floor and Anzu threw his shirt at her. She caught it and tossed it back, grinning. He grinned back, but it felt wooden and false on his face.
“Let’s just sleep, darling,” he said, heavily, the grin disappearing without a trace.
“Point taken,” said Mogila and turned the light off.