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Reading Dead Lips
Nouelle had always thought that she'd feel a sense of homecoming when she returned to
the country that had birthed her. But after eight years, it was already a foreign land. Her first day
back she risked a hostel near the border, and the shower water was wrong; it stung her flesh with
its force but never seemed to rinse off the lather. The loudest voices in the common room all
spoke the occupiers' dialects and she stayed silent rather than mark herself as a Czir. The cooking
smells too were unfamiliar. After that she slept out of doors. She was wiser than she'd been when last she breathed Czir air (this she told herself, and
sometimes she believed it too). She now knew occult sciences, after all, and had acquainted
herself with the many stages of corpse-stink. So yes, she was standing on ground that she'd had to
sell herself to escape, occupied ground. But she was also prepared. She'd lost everything she ever
had in this country and now, dammit, she had the chance to take just one thing back. Somewhere within these borders was her sister. On her third morning in Czir she browsed a cemetery--not the first she'd passed, but the
first remote enough for her work. The town which fed these graves seemed far enough away to
prevent any surprise drop-ins. Pacing the headstones, she snapped the thick elastic band wrapped around her wrist,
which read "STUDENT RECREATIONAL TRAVELER--DRAELES." Her cover story. It was
the only sound apart from her steps, aside from the nickering of the horses who eyed her warily
from the morning mist, unshoed and wild. Snap. Snap. The occupying West Noratians had changed the cemetery's name to Cauvault, and judging
by the names that she was seeing from these last eight years, they'd started to bury their own dead
here. She'd been counting on that. Snap. Nouelle stopped at a particularly ornate headstone, one depicting a flower whose roots
were aggressively wrapped around a boulder several times its size. He's military, she thought as she read: ALAND REPLIK, BRIGADIER DEC 1 NR 94 - AUG 15 NR 158 VOSHEN AIKUR, VOSHEN EN SAT "Perfect." She went to fetch her shovel, planted in the earth at the end of the row. Spring had thawed the land and so the digging was easy. Half an hour later, she was face-to-face with the half-rotted rictus of Aland Replik. He'd been buried in a soil-filled casket in what
she supposed was the West Noratian tradition. Carefully, she pried open his stiff jaw with a
gloved hand, and then wedged a small pill-shaped device into the dry palate of his mouth with
pliers. All right, she thought as she heaved herself out of the man's final resting ground. Let's
give Brigadier Replik a few minutes to get himself together.
by Dustin Steinacker
Artwork by Andres Mossa
Nouelle had always thought that she'd feel a sense of homecoming when she returned to the country that had birthed her. But after eight years, it was already a foreign land. Her first day back she risked a hostel near the border, and the shower water was wrong; it stung her flesh with its force but never seemed to rinse off the lather. The loudest voices in the common room all spoke the occupiers' dialects and she stayed silent rather than mark herself as a Czir. The cooking smells too were unfamiliar.
After that she slept out of doors.
She was wiser than she'd been when last she breathed Czir air (this she told herself, and sometimes she believed it too). She now knew occult sciences, after all, and had acquainted herself with the many stages of corpse-stink. So yes, she was standing on ground that she'd had to sell herself to escape, occupied ground. But she was also prepared. She'd lost everything she ever had in this country and now, dammit, she had the chance to take just one thing back.
Somewhere within these borders was her sister.
On her third morning in Czir she browsed a cemetery--not the first she'd passed, but the first remote enough for her work. The town which fed these graves seemed far enough away to prevent any surprise drop-ins.
Pacing the headstones, she snapped the thick elastic band wrapped around her wrist, which read "STUDENT RECREATIONAL TRAVELER--DRAELES." Her cover story. It was the only sound apart from her steps, aside from the nickering of the horses who eyed her warily from the morning mist, unshoed and wild.
The occupying West Noratians had changed the cemetery's name to Cauvault, and judging by the names that she was seeing from these last eight years, they'd started to bury their own dead here. She'd been counting on that.
Nouelle stopped at a particularly ornate headstone, one depicting a flower whose roots were aggressively wrapped around a boulder several times its size.
He's military, she thought as she read:
ALAND REPLIK, BRIGADIER
DEC 1 NR 94 - AUG 15 NR 158
VOSHEN AIKUR, VOSHEN EN SAT
"Perfect." She went to fetch her shovel, planted in the earth at the end of the row.
Spring had thawed the land and so the digging was easy. Half an hour later, she was face-to-face with the half-rotted rictus of Aland Replik. He'd been buried in a soil-filled casket in what she supposed was the West Noratian tradition. Carefully, she pried open his stiff jaw with a gloved hand, and then wedged a small pill-shaped device into the dry palate of his mouth with pliers.
All right, she thought as she heaved herself out of the man's final resting ground. Let's give Brigadier Replik a few minutes to get himself together.
On her way back to her rusted motorbuggy, Nouelle put in her earpiece. She gave the tiny glass globe at the end of its wire a couple of light flicks with her finger, through her jacket-pocket.
Lynn began to rouse.
"How long?" The voice was earnest but muffled, like a woman speaking through a tunnel.
"Since we spoke?" Nouelle opened the lockbox to the vehicle's rear. Glass bottles clinked as she rummaged within. "A few hours."
"Hours, damn. I'm noticing the time pass less and less. I wonder if that's what happens to everybody. The moments stretch until you just slip away into eternity."
"Want to see something interesting?"
A long pause.
Then, with a thin anger, the voice said: "You made the trip, didn't you, Nouelle?"
The one you advised me against, both as a professional and as a person with common sense? "Yes."
"Why not follow my advice, like you did before? Or like you pretended to."
Nouelle put down her canteen and took out the globe, no larger than her thumbnail. She scrutinized the deceptively clear air within it. "I miss seeing your body language, Lynn. To know when you're joking."
"I never joked with my clients, not in that way. Too easy to misconstrue. My little refugee, you shouldn't have come here. You're confusing closure with recovery."
"You're not on the clock, Lynn. Give it up." Nouelle took a handful of dried currants.
"Fine. Bluntly, then: You've got more than enough corpses in your past, without digging more up."
Nouelle looked up at the sound of a faraway crack. Rifle. A hunter, probably. The only person she'd seen all morning was an old man, hunched and scavenging in a distant brake of trees. "I'm not interested in a corpse."
"You don't know she's alive."
"Go to hell." Nouelle slammed the lid and set off for Replik's grave.
Lynn had barely diluted at all with her death. Speaking to her brought Nouelle back to that office of flickering fluorescence where they'd met for seven months, back to that place which sold not normalcy but the promise of normalcy to those they called "displaced persons" or "civilian victims of war." That was all her country of asylum, all Draeles had ever been to her: just a series of rooms, of buildings. Government offices of counseling, the university where she'd traded up from Osteopathic Medicine to a science so new and avant-garde that few knew it or dared teach it, the dishroom where she put in her daily four hours to maintain the refugee scholarship. A nation budgeting just enough to assuage its guilt over nearby savageries it might have done more to prevent, just enough to go on hating those who'd faced them.
So many therapists, so much bureaucratic compassion. Until Lynn. She realized it only after: Lynn was the real thing, behind those stern eyes. Lynn had cared. Poor sod.
Nouelle crouched over the open casket, and she held out Lynn's globe. "Can you see him?"
"See isn't the word for it," said Lynn. "But yes. There's an ocean of voices here. They're faded. But this one . . . you've done something to him. You've brought him together."
Nouelle could feel the change in him, too. There was no way around death--death was final. But it was a slower process than most knew. The dead kept roots in the corporeal world, like a ripple's echo rebounding long after the stone which made it has sunk to the lake floor.
And, with a little work, they could even speak.
What was left of Aland Replik's quintessence had gathered to the receiver wedged in his palate. She only hoped it would be enough. She'd never done this in the field before.
She closed the corpse's mouth. The once-stiff jaw moved without protest. An electric thrill shot down her arms and legs.
"Why don't you introduce yourself?" she asked quietly, massaging the remaining tissue of Replik's face. It resisted slightly more when moved in some directions than in others; the half-there lips stiffening when pursed, or loosening when puckered. Some lingering eyelid-flesh fluttered.
C'mon, you decrepit bastard.
She jerked her hand away at the crack of the joint. Replik's jaw flew open as if he were gasping for air.
Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she felt Lynn snap to attention.
"Can you hear me, Aland?" she asked in passable Noratian.
The man began to speak, falteringly, as if dazed.
I'm blind, she wrote on her ledger in shorthand, recording his words with care. Can't breathe.
All right--time for the nurse act.
"You'll be fine," she said. "We've got some wonderful people looking after you. In the meantime, I'm going to have to ask you just a few questions. Where were you born?"
More silent speech. No, his voice was a whisper now but she could hear it, rising: "In . . . in Adni. Adni Workhouse. I think I've been paralyzed, I--"
"Please, answer the questions. What day and year is it?"
"August second, maybe third. In the one hundred and fifty-eighth year of the National Revolution."
She checked the tombstone. Two weeks before his death. Might have been comatose before he went.
"And how long have you lived in this country, Aland?"
"Three years. I came here with Stassia and her family."
"Very good. Listen carefully, because I'm going to test your memory. You were an officer, correct?"
"Were an officer?"
"I am a Brigadier, Prime Overseer of the Frontier Region." He frowned. "You're a doctor, did you say?"
"Have you heard of the village of Óste? That would be its Czirash name."
A pause. The flesh of his head and neck tensed.
"Yes," Replik finally said. "I did not serve near the Capital, but everyone in the service knows that place."
Damn you, Noe, she thought in better self-recrimination. You've overplayed yourself. Too excited, too rushed. He knows what you are, there's no way he doesn't. Just get on with it.
She swallowed. Suddenly she was very aware of where she was. Of how indefensible this scene would be, if somebody came upon her.
"The children, Aland," she said. "The ones being carted out in that photograph, after the other shootings. In that picture that was smuggled out and put in the Gazette in Draeles. Where did you take them?"
The corpse said nothing.
"Where would they be taken? Labor camp? Settlement?"
Replik muttered what may have been a prayer or a curse. "I've been captured, haven't I? I hear your accent. I know what you hounds do to the men you catch." What was left of his eyes bulged in horror. "And I've told you my identity."
"You've been drugging me, I know it. I feel as if I've been sleeping for days, weeks even. But so tired."
"If I were what you say I am, you'd work with me all the more. Do you know why?" She waited. "Because I'm free. I could do something for you. A favor. Deliver a message, or check on somebody, maybe?" She grinned. "Relax. We're not all hounds."
"What an offer you make, insurgent. Why would I trust you with a message? With family?"
She calculated. There'd been just a hint of cathedral spires in the distance as the sun rose, a steady whiff of smoke upwind, vestiges of tire trails leading off in the same direction. People lived past those trees, maybe a quarter-hour's drive.
Nouelle made her voice hard. "Aland, we're hours from storming your village. Some of our women and men lived there, before they were thrown out or jailed. Some of them still do. How gentle do you think they'll be, to the people walking their streets, whistling at their daughters, making them vagrants in their own neighborhoods?"
Replik winced. He seemed to debate with himself.
"Nastassia. That's her name. Surname Naviki née Replik. Lives just across the river, near the garrison."
"A man with a birthmark on his cheek. If you see him in that house, or anywhere near that house, I want you to have his legs broken. But not in front of the grandchild."
"And if this Nastassia objects?"
"She'll object. Do it all the same. And then you protect that house."
"And how is that name spelled?"
As he spoke, Nouelle pointedly drew crosses and diamonds in her ledger as if writing a name.
"You have my word, Aland. Now let's talk."
Ten minutes and three ledger pages later, they were finished.
"And that's all you know?" Nouelle asked, plucking the pliers from her belt. She tried not to sound disappointed.
"I'm an honest man, faults notwithstanding," Replik said, with the shadow of a smile. "Now it's time for you to keep up your end of our--"
With a swift tug of the pliers, she pulled the receiver out of the roof of his mouth. Aland Replik seemed to shrivel slightly as faux-life left him, to shrink back into the earth.
She pulled the glass of the collection tube from the receiver and crushed it against a stone with her boot. For a moment she imagined the man dispersing in the wind.
"Cruel," Lynn said.
Oh, are there rules of etiquette when dealing with war criminals? Nouelle thought. But no, Lynn deserved better.
As she walked, she studied the chickenscratch map she'd drawn by the corpse's instruction. "Nobody's invading that village, Lynn. That man's daughter, she'll stay living in that house her daddy stole for her. Same as if we never dug him up."
"Those were his last wishes. Ghastly ones, I'll admit."
"If he had any last wishes, he gave them two years ago. I just brought him back for a little postscript. He isn't anything anymore. Just a ripple. The grease you smell in the air after cooking dinner."
"Nice to finally know what you think of me."
Nouelle stopped. "That's not what I meant. There's barely anything of him left, he's been dead so long. But I was there with you, Lynn, you're so strong you can speak without a throat, you . . ."
You don't want to hear it.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. She took out her earpiece, stomach tight.
She told herself it was only her journey ending which made her so cross, which put her at odds with one of the better people she'd ever known. This exhumation hadn't given her much of anything useful, after all. Just a direction, one she could never go. This map she'd drawn was a map to her destruction.
Northeastward. To the capital outskirts. Buildings with records of captives taken to workhouses, to interim camps, or, in a mockery of compassion, to aid workers outside the country. And she knew what she would have to pass to get there. Azhmany. The first village with a military post. Hrudin. The first with patrols. Then the first checkpoint for people like her. The first with ethnic martial law.
One of these would mean her capture. One of these would mean her death.
She'd taken herself back to her homeland, only long enough to bring scared little Noe back. And now she had to leave.
"Just one drink," she said, and went for her lockbox. And not for the canteen.
Nouelle awoke in a start and sat upright.
After a few miserable dry heaves she emptied what was left in her poor stomach onto the ground. Shielding her eyes from the sun's glare she took a few deep breaths and tried, parched, to spit.
The fifth of brandy lay in the thin grass near her ankles, considerably emptier than she'd intended. She tightened the tasting cork and deposited the bottle on the running board of the buggy beside her.
She rose carefully, eyes squinched, battling nausea. She took a few pained steps and fumbled in her lockbox.
"You try to find this?"
Nouelle turned with a gasp and then winced as her skull throbbed.
The old man. The scavenger she'd seen earlier. He was holding out her canteen.
"You sleep in the shade, but then the sun moves." He smiled. "You bake yourself."
"You speak Czirash?"
He made a non-committal hand gesture. A little.
Nouelle coughed and took her canteen. She unscrewed the cap and paused. She sniffed the water.
"Safe," he said.
She shrugged and took a sip, rinsed her mouth and spat before finishing off the rest of the water. "Thanks."
He was a Noratian, of course. An ethnic mainlander, with their pale skin and harsh facial lines. There wasn't a hint of white in his beard, but maybe he was dyeing it.
"You look for someone?"
"These bodies, you should let them rest. But I know why you dig them up, maybe."
She blinked. "Have you been watching me?"
He said nothing.
"No, just who the hell are you?" She stepped back. "What are you doing here? Are you looking for--for people like me?"
She shuddered, looked about. Almost she felt she could hear the rattling of treads, the distant rumbling of mortars.
"No, no! Not like that." He held up his arms. "Not for government. For me."
She reached into the back pocket of her slacks, for the retractable blade she carried. She forced herself to smile. "Are you here with anybody? Any friends?"
She raised the blade. "Step to the side, over there, where I can see you. Then do not move one inch. If I ever see you again . . ." Harsher words failed her. "I won't hesitate. Do you understand me?"
With a sad smile he nodded and obeyed.
She pulled the blocks out from behind the buggy's front tires, then set them down inside. She climbed shakily into the driver's compartment, dropped her brandy bottle into the other seat and turned the key. The engine shuddered to life.
Behind her was the road back to Draeles, back to an outsider's life. Walking through endless rooms that didn't belong to her, dulling the pain in whatever way she could, and all the while remembering this moment, wondering what might have been.
The old Noratian hadn't moved, hadn't said one word. But there was something in his eyes. A hurt she couldn't understand. Some genuine need, not a partisan's devotion.
"I take you," he said quietly. "Where you're going."
"You don't know where I'm going. Why would you offer that?"
"Please," he only said. "I want to."
She looked down the road, then back to those eyes.
"Óste. You can get me there?"
He blinked in surprise, but nodded.
"Past the checkpoints?"
Nouelle warred with herself. She'd given everything to get here, bought this vehicle and then abused and weather-treated it until the sight of her with it wouldn't attract suspicion. Bought under-the-table passage over the border, with cash this time. But even if she turned back now, gave up, she'd still have her life.
And she'd never forgive herself for it.
This man, she thought, will get me killed.
Not because she didn't trust him, though she was pretty sure she didn't. But because she would let him take her back home, back into the belly of the beast.
She opened the passenger door. "You travel with me at your own peril. Do you understand?"
Óste. That's where they were going. Her village lived in the shadow of the new West Noratian capital, where it was said that firing squads still resounded weekly in the morning air, and where a Czir might be plucked out of a checkpoint and not reappear for months, if at all.
She told herself that she wouldn't actually enter the Capital, but that hardly reassured. Her hometown had only ever been close enough for the heat and smog of the city once called Pernin to be a frightful shimmer in the distance. Father had often said that dragons lived there, speaking of city people and their ways, but in her child's innocence she took it literally and learned to watch the horizon with dread. Now, Pernin was ruled by worse than dragons.
The man, Alex, couldn't drive. She didn't even ask: she could see the stroke in the way he moved. Every time he'd stop to piss she fought the temptation to leave him there and turn back, call this off. She missed talking to Lynn. She'd rather that Alex didn't know of her.
They drove in the well-trod dirt of others passed, which gained cohesion until it became a road almost without her noticing. Soon they'd be on the highway she'd been avoiding.
"Slow," Alex said, as a rabble of Czir children crossed the road ahead, whooping and chasing a corn crake the lead child held tethered by a string tied around its leg. As the bird took burdened flight, a girl cackled and yanked hard at the string and sent it flailing groundward to the protests of its would-be tamer. Alex watched their play fondly, like a doting grandfather.
The children disappeared into a network of shanty-houses blanketing the left side of the road, columns of doors repurposed into walls along with rotten lumber and metal siding, tarps tied down for roofs.
These children have only known bondage, she thought.
And another thought, one she was surprised to find alarmed her even more: she felt no commonality with these children. Nor with the other Czir she'd seen since arriving here. And she could think of Óste, but couldn't think of it as home.
It's not just the occupation, a voice in her head said. It's you that's changed. You aren't Czir, aren't a Draelene student either.
Are you anything at all?
Alex warned her that it wasn't her village she'd be returning to, but a boneyard. "After that battle," he said, and she bit her tongue not to meet that with it wasn't a battle, it was murder, "they would not move the bodies. They would bury near, in one place. Then, the winter next-next, when your rebels slaughter the officers and their families: more graves, also one place. Nobody will live there now."
The greatest atrocity in an occupation filled with atrocities. None of the usual controlled repression, no, only a conqueror's id dredged to the surface, manifest: Mass executions of combatants and non-combatants alike, a village of resistance turned into a killing field. And then, in one final grave-spitting insult, the killers had moved into the homes of the dead.
Were these all just footnotes? Things that happened?
She had to say something, or she might strike this man.
"Why on earth would they bury their officers alongside Czir?"
"Took tribute for themselves, I hear." He shrugged. "From the village. Hid away nice things they found. Made themselves Czir in death."
"I don't want to hear any more."
Stormclouds were gathering, so they camped that night in a disheveled grain silo just off the road. Black ash coated the inside wall, which in places was torn away in curls like paper. Travelers had stopped to build fires here. Nouelle was a mouthful of scotch away from an empty flask and trying to decide whether she'd need more to sleep, even if that meant going out into the storm.
"I still don't like this," Lynn said. The earpiece in Nouelle's ear wasn't much more than a tin can on a string, but it carried her words well enough, even over the din. Lynn had always been strong.
Nouelle spoke quietly as Alex slept. "I'm chasing a ghost, right?"
"I'll admit that I've sometimes gotten caught up in metaphor while advising you. But in the sense of seeking something you won't find, yes. You heard yourself earlier: labor camps, settlements. Do you think you can just drive up with a name and fetch a person?"
She swallowed. "I'll figure that out when--"
"And what if she's been raised under a new name? She won't answer to hers, or remember you."
"I need to do what I can. Oh, and go screw yourself."
"You need to do this? This is for you?"
"You know what I meant. Actually, I thought you'd just say if only."
She listened to the rain drumming on the metal walls, at the way it would change sides with the wind. She bristled at the occasional droplet on her cheek. She thought.
"I didn't even like the baby that much," Nouelle said. "Hated her, in fact. Such a little terror. As the occupation wore on, eventually only Father would leave the house, and I'd be trapped inside with her and Mom. All day."
Lynn was silent.
"One evening, though. One evening Father was having one of his rough spots. That's what Mom called them, as if that excused what he'd do to her sometimes, to me. He'd finished with Mother and apparently it wasn't enough because he started in my direction, started shouting something about the look I was giving him, some bogus thing to justify it."
"I didn't know your father was a drinker."
"My father never drank."
Nouelle breathed in, sharp. "Katty was nearly three. She came running up from wherever she always hid and she threw her arms around my neck, just held on tight. I thought she wanted me to protect her, so I tried to turn and shield her. But she squirmed free and went around. Between me and Father. See, she knew he didn't beat on her. She only knew maybe four words but she'd figured out that much. She was protecting me. For the first time, I knew she saw me as a sister.
"And not even a month later, I abandoned her. Ran right past her out of the house when I heard shots from the road. She was chewing at her fist and she watched me go. I wonder when she realized her sister had left her behind."
A long silence followed. Nouelle rolled onto her side and pillowed her head into the crook of her arm.
"Why didn't you tell me this, about Catherine? During our sessions?"
Nouelle shrugged. "Would you have advised me any differently?"
"No. Even now, no. But I'd have known you better. It could have helped in other ways."
"You were being paid, by the resettlement project. Why would I trust you?"
"You kidding? My objectivity comes at a premium. But when you're a friend, oh, that's when I get to be a real shitheel."
Nouelle laughed, and brushed her cheek dry, and slept.
Jeeps rumbled by in the early morning, too many to be civilian. Nouelle woke and cowered, held her breath, stared through the gash that led outside. She wished that she could sink into the metal of the silo floor, and then even further into the earth and the bedrock beneath it. In her dreams, no depth was ever far enough to avoid capture.
Alex's back and neck were straighter than she'd ever seen him. His face was tight and his eyes unmoving until he blinked, twice, and seemed to slip back into his usual self. He relaxed.
She did not. Was the buggy outside decrepit enough, she wondered? Did it look like enough of a junker? She'd parked it with a door open and unscrewed one of the headlights, but if they suspected it was functioning, and decided to check the only shelter in sight for its owner . . .
She was going to fail, to freeze, when the time came. She knew it. The moment that tested her mettle, whenever it was, it would break her. And this time, nothing she had to offer, no money or even sex as a dread last resort, would save her again.
She tried to think of nothing but her breath, the way Lynn had taught her. It wasn't working. She felt smothered, choked.
Alex approached with deliberate steps. He lowered himself and put his hand on her shoulder. "Who is that you talk to?" He asked. "At night? Ears still strong, I hear it. And you hold something. Radio?"
He was trying to distract her, bless him for it.
"No." She picked up Lynn. He took her gingerly, like he was holding a baby bird. "Like this." She mimed inserting the earpiece, her hand shaking. He put it in.
After a second, his face brightened in utterly childlike wonder. "Oh. Delightful." He stared into the glass globe as he spoke halting sentences to Lynn in Nouelle's tongue, transfixed, laughing open-mouthed with every response.
By the time she thought of the road again, it was quiet.
"First checkpoint, since the border," Alex said, slashing a line with his finger along his pocket roadmap, a more detailed affair than the map Nouelle had sketched by the dead Replik's instruction. They'd pulled over to plan, beside a series of pastel-painted concrete houses backing a garbage-clogged river. To a casual observer, he'd reasoned, they might look like well-to-do Czir setting out to market. "No papers needed yet, I think. Wait for only one guard on duty, money." He held out his hand miming an offering. "I will talk."
"I don't have any money," Nouelle said. "My living allowance from resettlement, I spent it all getting here."
"Too much." He clucked at the foil-wrapped rations they were eating, packed up to the brim of her lockbox with the bottles. "Nenthe. Expensive. Should buy food here."
That feeling, that disconnect struck her again.
There was an open-air market or two nearby, she knew from the scent in the air. The custom was to buy the ingredients for the day's meals in the morning and then cook the first there, weather permitting, over communal fires or coals. It was a chance for children to play, for manual laborers to start the day with friends before beginning their work, for the poor to beg a morsel or two in exchange for tending the flames and scouring the pans.
But she'd never even considered availing herself of her own people. Instead she'd brought her own food and refilled her water stores from streams, dropping in iodine. She'd prepared as if she were camping in some unpeopled wilderness.
"We'll give him some dried fruit, then. Or a pouch of protein or something."
Alex exhaled through his teeth. "No other gift. Only money. Easy to hide." He spoke then in an undertone, and it wasn't until he leaned in and cupped the earpiece that Nouelle realized he was talking to Lynn. He'd been wearing her all day.
"Bourbon, she says you have." He reached for the latch of the lockbox. "Grey Marker. Common here, nice. We offer that."
Damned bloody Lynn.
She took his wrist. "You said it should be easier to hide."
"Liquor is a . . ." he thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Exception." He opened his arms wide, and laughed. "All to share!"
"I'd rather not give away my . . . my supplies."
"Drink water," he said. He held out his arm--how had she not noticed his yellowed skin?--and pressed the flesh with two fingers. The imprint stayed, like a sponge. "One day, you realize, too late. And still you drink."
Nonsense, she thought. I'm supposed to give up my nightcap because an old jaundiced Noratian cocked up his liver?
She looked at her shovel. "What if I had another plan?"
Alex spoke to the guard at length, his face a mask of austerity and confidence. They were relatives, he was saying, of Iliza Marla Marozh, here to pay their respects to the family.
He had balked at the idea of interrogating the dead woman. But as Nouelle explained the process he finally conceded that it was a more reliable plan than a bribe. Marozh had been buried only three weeks before. So their story was plausible; he knew anything about her that a relative--who'd forgotten his transport papers, wouldn't you know--would have, down to the fact that she had occasionally crossed this very station to visit her own husband's grave.
Nouelle's face might have forced a show of papers had the guard given her a good look. They were supposed to check, as militant Czir could often pass for their West Noratian occupiers. But she pretended to sleep, curled over on the passenger's side.
Their speech was too fast, too nuanced and slang-laden for Nouelle to easily follow, and finally, she gave up. At the end, the guard asked some question. Alex gave Nouelle a light pat on the knee and the two shared a vulgar laugh.
"What did you two say about me?" she asked later, back in the driver's seat. His turn at the wheel had been so slow, so careful that she was sure they'd be found out.
"That you are my wife."
"That was not all of it."
He held up his palm. "Necessary."
And watched him watch the terrain. It was as if he were staring into the sun, looking some duty head-on that set his stomach on edge, but which couldn't be avoided. That same look from the day they met. She'd need to ask him about it.
They passed miles of empty brown farmland as they approached the new capital. Workers were hoeing rows and clearing stones in preparation for the late-spring sowing.
"So worried. Don't be. This place is calmer now."
"Calmer? Yes, life is easier when you clean out everybody who causes problems for you, isn't it?"
He didn't respond. He eyed the fields of tawny cattle, grazing parallel to one another, the sun to their left. The weatherworn steep-roofed shacks from which this farmland was administered by rustic, uncomplicated folk of the sort Nouelle had known in Óste. Tentative paddocks where stacked stones made fences for horses or swine.
Nouelle thought of what Alex had said. As it had before, this side of him stuck in her throat. War was so much more than the people who did the killing. It started with some other way of thinking about another people, with a casual indifference. Which gives birth to the nascent idea that their suffering was an acceptable means to some end, some bullshit broader aim.
And then, after decades: burnt villages, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing . . .
"Did you grow up rehearsing an invasion of my people? You called the rabbits Czir when you threw stones at them, didn't you?"
"All that," he said, "and more. My kin lived near Uluk. By the border. I am old. But I remember fear, those days. People, sometimes they go out, and don't come back. Sometimes Czir kill them."
She'd heard this before: war apologia which assigned her people a kind of racial karma for the occupation, which didn't say they were to blame exactly, but which danced nevertheless around the implication. She should have known she'd find it here.
Alex looked uncomfortable. He seemed aware that he'd said something wrong. Then, he grinned. "You know magic?"
"Magic trick. I show you."
His face fell.
She almost laughed--that must have been his foolproof tension-breaker. But she was glad for his silence.
But, a few kilometers down the road: "How do you know her?"
He held up Lynn's globe, and pointed to his ear.
"I'd have thought you'd been through all of this with her by now," Nouelle said. "Haven't you two been pouring your hearts out to each other?"
He squinted at the metaphor. "Is your right to share, she said."
Nouelle smiled. So Lynn was holding herself to some sort of confidentiality, long after no authority on Earth could rightfully expect it.
"She was my therapist. She was paid by the government. To help me come to terms with what had happened to me, to heal, to assimilate."
"Assimil . . ."
"To stop speaking Czirash. Act like them. Not make them think about my country when they saw me."
"Ah." He raised an eyebrow. "Did you . . . ?"
What did he mean?
"No! No, I'm not a killer. But I was there when it happened. There were people who targeted people like her, people who were . . . who were helping people like me. We were in a cab together." She pulled up her pantleg. The scar started along her calf and went up nearly to her knee. "I don't know who it was. Somebody who'd been following her. They rammed us sidelong. She was sitting on that side.
"I got away. She didn't. But I took what was left."
"Why keep her? And not a friend, not kin?"
"All of my kin are here. And friends, as a Czir? Do you think I had the pick of the market, browsing for spirits?"
"Every apology." He held up his hand. "Too many questions. I let you drive."
They passed a longer, machine-tilled field. Central pivot irrigators sat tarped and dormant, ready to mist the year's crop, duplicating the work of dozens of smallholder farmers digging trenches to divert river water. No mongrel thatch cottages here; only a pristine aluminum workhouse which screamed capital and seasonal laborers, probably Czir kept at subsistence.
Nouelle sighed. "No, it's not only that. Look at Lynn's globe. Spiritual matter follows the rules it remembers from life. So it takes up space, it moves in the wind. But the vial we used for Marozh. Much smaller, right?"
He pursed his lips. "Right, I think."
"Lynn needs more space. Look, this is a new science, and maybe others could explain this better. But there's an intent to life, and it sticks around, even after death. But if you don't contain it, it spreads out, it diffuses. These other corpses, even newly-inhumed Iliza back there, they're more like a recording. Some intent there, but it's passive. It forgets. Talk to them long enough and they'll start asking you the same questions over again.
"But Lynn here, I distilled her before all that could happen. Fresh. She's a person, Alex. She's as alive as you or I."
The old man regarded the globe with a new reverence. "Second birth . . ." He closed his eyes, muttered a prayer. Then he tilted his head, listening over the earpiece.
"What does she say?" Nouelle asked.
He shook his head. "Doesn't agree."
"This, here, we leave the road," Alex said, pointing.
"There's a road ahead that goes home. I remember it."
"No. Not that road. Not any road anymore."
Nouelle couldn't guess what he meant. Until she saw it: part of the old road, passing a thin copse of trees to the right. She trembled and stopped the car.
She'd been on this road dozens of times with Father, going out to do the community work of repairing fences or checking the forest traps when it was his turn. Now it was little more than scar tissue. The old road to Óste had been cleared, as part of the clearing of the village itself from history. To hide what they'd done. To pave over the brightest blood of their new nation's founding.
"I will drive."
"No, I'm all right. Let's keep going."
The landscape grew wild and raw, patches of crownvetch and sunny anthyllis battling for dominance from the lake to the limestone foothills above. Fallow deer congregated in the distance, far closer to the village than they had ever ventured during Nouelle's time.
This can't be home, she thought.
They arrived at a ruin.
Blackened it was, very little she could even recognize as manmade except burned-out debris.
She stopped the buggy and stepped out, leaving a sleeping Alex behind.
To Nouelle, the word "ghost" had lost some of its paranormal bite. But here it came roaring back, with all of its primeval melancholy. She walked the streets, now leveled. Here a wall stood, there lay the remains of what might have been a washboard. It was like looking at a map of a place she once knew: Everything was the right distance apart, but the flat substance of it didn't match.
Her stomach roiled.
"I'm sorry," Alex said, behind her, "for you to see such a place. We can go around."
She shook her head, folded her arms tight to keep them from shaking. "No, this is it. I'm . . . I'm home."
They must have razed the entire village, Alex said carefully, rather than admit that ordinary people had killed the officers living here. Better for the city to appear a battle casualty.
"Why does it matter?" she managed. "Whether it was military or rebels?"
"Czir military all captured or killed. Nobody there left, but still guerrillas fighting. No need to inspire them."
"But you know it was rebels."
"Everybody knows. Propaganda."
"Then why?" she pled. For understanding, for any way to put order to this. Questions of politics seemed so distant and sanitary to this charnel town before her. "Why the coverup?"
"We pretend not to. Same thing. Propaganda still works."
These streets of death brought names back to her memory. Her friend, little Tibor, he of the harelip scar. The Valentins, who both shouted and struck their children and made Noe glad for her gentle mother. Petr Mátyás, an oddly well-to-do peddler who'd had the misfortune of settling in Óste just before the end. A nice man with a hard-to-place accent who loved a foolish pun.
All dead or enslaved or worse. This was a graveyard, as much as any she'd visited coming here.
Nouelle didn't remember fishing the elastic from her pocket, but there again was that comforting sting against her wrist.
There were two likely directions for the bodies. Westerly, past the half-standing livestock fence, between the village and the capital. Or along Óste's lower perimeter--it surprised her how easily a martial word like perimeter came to mind when talking about home--flanking the river. She doubted they'd have taken corpses over water or dug up the rockier untilled land on the other side of the road. If they had, she'd expand her search.
It was late, she told herself, though the sun was only just beginning to glare as it set. Better to go spirit-hunting in the morning.
Mercifully, Alex had held back as she toured her blighted hometown and, also mercifully, had returned Lynn. That night they left the buggy behind a standing wooden corner of wall, hidden from the road.
More vehicles passed in the dark. She looked out to see open-topped jeeps housing five soldiers each.
"Is this unusual?" she asked, keeping her voice even.
Alex smiled gently. "These men are for you, you mean? No worrying. Separate thing, something else wrong."
"But if they thought I was a scout of some sort? Maybe they recognized the buggy or the checkpoint guard said something--"
"Shhh." he took her hand and she could feel his good arm, steady.
"You have a gun?" Alex asked in the low light of the next morning. Why he hadn't asked that until this moment, she didn't know.
"I did, before, for the settlements. But not here."
He laughed silently, though his eyes betrayed concern. "Ironic, I think."
"I figured that if I really ran into somebody I couldn't handle here, they'd be military anyway."
"They see a weapon, and you're killed. As a fighter."
"More or less."
"But untrue. Civilian small arms only, keep maintained but looking old, like your car. No long guns, no guerrilla weapons, carry few bullets. Keep shells dry but dirty. Not notable, not what they look for."
She watched him, sitting knees-up against this weathered, toppled house beam; a mockery of the refugee she actually was. A chill ran up her back to her mind where it stayed.
"You know a great deal about this military, don't you?" she asked quietly. "Tactics, mindset, equipment use. You're a traditionalist society. You wouldn't change much over the decades."
Alex said nothing.
"I saw you when the jeeps passed, that night in the silo. I thought you were nervous. But you're under no threat in occupied Czir. Even with an exile in tow, you can get around, can't you?"
She pictured him then: his face going rigid and serious and perceiving, back suddenly ramrod-straight like a younger man's. The very shape of formality.
And then she understood what she'd been seeing in his eyes.
"Do you know what I think? I think it was force of habit. Discipline. I think you were a soldier. Am I right?"
He regarded her a good long while. Then he nodded.
"You'd have come of age around the Ruining of Auden. I remember the stories." Dessicated clans marched through the desert to die, mountain-folk worked to collapse in killing camps and then kiln-fired into dust. "You were there, weren't you?"
Alex was silent. But he reached into his stow-pack and after fishing for a bit produced a rough aluminum disc the diameter of his index finger. There were words engraved into it. His knuckles went white around it as he gripped it, like some trinket of worship.
"Whose agony do you think you're erasing?" she asked quietly. "What did you do, that you're atoning for through me?"
His eyes were wet. "Not me." He proffered her the dog tag, but she would not take it or look at it. "Not me, others."
That's how it always works, isn't it? I wasn't the murderous architect. The orders weren't mine. I only played my small part.
"But you were at Auden?"
He nodded. He wanted to say more, she could tell.
"So that brought you to the border, looking for . . . for somebody like me. For some poor expat hoping to take back a tiny piece of the life they lost. Well, is it working? Do you think you'll get closure through my closure?"
He looked down.
"All right--go. Take some water and a couple of pouches if you need to, but go."
He opened his mouth to speak.
"Why don't you just get away from me?" She stood, and for a moment he was her bitter enemy, and she standing against him. And then, just as quickly, that flare of anger was gone, burned out.
There on the ground, Alex seemed aged almost beyond belief, far more even than when Nouelle had met him. Whatever he'd been before, whatever he'd done when he was that thing, he was no monster now. Just an old man wrapped up in pain and regret.
"I won't lie--I like you. But I can't have you here, not for this. Please understand." She did her best to smile but she was sure it came out looking sick. She felt sick.
She offered her hand.
Alex nodded, lips tight, and rose carefully on his own. He gathered his things from the buggy in what felt like seconds--had he really brought so little?--and took his first slow steps away before turning to face her.
He tossed his dog tag Nouelle's way with a flourish, as if he were presenting a rose to a performer. He gave her a shallow bow. And then he was gone.
"Just one drink," Nouelle said to herself. The words came easily. She was suddenly very tired, body-tired. She tried not to look at Alex's dog tag, settling into the warm mud.
Lynn's voice came in. "You threw him away? Just like that."
"It's not my job to validate an old war dog with a failed liver." Her callousness didn't ring true, even to her own ears. "Listen, whatever crimes he's trying to bury, whatever awful things he did--"
"He wanted to help."
"He did, Lynn. I believe that, I do. But look at this village. This happened because of people like him. And so much more like this." It wasn't the man Alex she couldn't bring with her, but everything he brought with him. How could she explain?
"He could have gotten you back to the border. Without him you'll die."
Her throat tightened. "I'll be fine. Getting out is easier than getting in, and besides--"
"Do me a favor. Disperse me. Send me on, right now."
Nouelle stepped back, shocked. "What?"
"I'm fading, Nouelle. Having trouble keeping ahold of myself. Unless someone's talking to me, it feels like I'm dreaming, and sometimes even then. I can't do this anymore."
"Even for me?"
Lynn laughed. "You don't need me. Maybe you did, once. I think you just wanted to prove to somebody that you could do this, go back home and own your past. But the person you needed? You sent him away."
"I'll do it," Nouelle said, almost as if it were a threat.
She didn't tell Lynn that she wasn't sure it would even work, that Lynn's quintessence would truly move on to some other plane or become one with all other departed consciousness or any such thing. That was still very much the realm of philosophy.
"Then do." Lynn's voice was suddenly very professional, more like her living self than ever.
A darker thought flitted across Nouelle's mind: Lynn had no say in this matter. Nouelle could keep her like a pet, like a hostage. Keep her companion bound for as long as she liked. Lynn was the one person who would stay by her side because she couldn't not stay, not if Nouelle wanted it that way.
"And for what it's worth, if you don't find what you're looking for out here? It's okay. Your recovery has nothing to do with--"
Nouelle crushed the globe with the heel of her boot, and with a sound like a sudden inhalation Lynn fell silent.
Blinking, looking about, Nouelle pulled out the earpiece, and dropped it to the ground.
She was alone.
Back to her makeshift shelter, enervated, depleted. After hours of fitful half-sleep, she went out with her flashlight and walked stooped in the dark until she found it.
Under the shroud of her thermal blanket, she read the fat aluminum disc by flashlight. Alex's dog tag was pocked and scratched and grime had gathered in the old engravings but still she could read the words, written across two tongues:
SCYZAT - NAKAR-ANCRETCLAS
MESS COOK - PROTECTED NONCOMBATANT
The laughter came easily, cathartic and bitter both. Leave it to the old man to have one last joke.
She slept easily now, and dreamed of the work waiting for her in the morning.
No markers here, no headstones. Nouelle found white chive and gamagrass rising for another season of nourishment by human bodies.
It was as Alex had said. Two rows, separate. She didn't have to guess which held the civilians; there must have been nearly twice as many of them. The officers must have buried them right where they'd done the killing, along the inner side of the fence, where her people had grown sugar beets and sunflowers. The killers would not sow here; they wouldn't have needed the fields. And two years later, their own bodies had filled out a smaller row.
This is where she began digging. She didn't even look up when she heard rifleshots, far away.
These were traumatized, addled corpses. West Noratian bodies which, by the circumstance of their deaths, had shed their spirit far. She knew better than to interrogate any who had been shot through the skull, but even the intact were hardly coherent. They couldn't do much more than convulse minutely in place, or gasp for air inconsolable, or ask the same desperate questions over and over.
It had been theorized, but never with so perfect a case study: Spiritual matter released at the same time might mingle. These people had been killed in one swoop, and then buried together. Maybe she wasn't really reviving one person but fragments of many, muddled together and indistinguishable.
"The children." She abandoned the nurse act, asking over and over, asking outright. "You were here, yes? Where were they taken?" But even those who perked up at her words couldn't follow them.
She couldn't bring herself to check under these bodies and see if this mass grave ran deeper, so she went on, to the end of the occupiers' row, where there were greater gaps in the grass.
She exhumed the last body.
He couldn't have been older than his mid-twenties. He might even have been handsome once. She could see a hint of the severe features she preferred in a man, not muscled but lean and harsh, as if he'd been cut out of a mountain fully-formed.
She grimaced. Disgusting, to appraise a corpse in this way.
But no, there was something else. Something about what remained of his bearing, or his tattered officer's dress, something that brought memories to mind. Real ones?
When she revived him, he was still, almost calm. She gave him extra time to gather himself. She might only have one good chance at this.
"Time to wake up," she said.
"Is it?" he mouthed. His voice was clear from the first syllable. "I feel heavy."
"If you have a moment, I'd like to ask you some questions."
"Is this a trial?" His head bobbed from side to side in the soil. "I've been dreaming of a trial."
"Just some questions, sir." She couldn't resist adding an ironic bent to the word.
He gained presence. "Just a few questions, she says. How brutal is the coda to an exchange which begins with that phrase. We use it ourselves. You've bound me tight, all the better."
He was collected--she had nothing to worry about there. She smiled. "Think of it as a trial, then, if that helps."
He sighed. "And would you believe that it does?"
"What is your name and rank?"
"Oh, none of that would mean anything to you. I'm far from famous, and in a sort of retirement."
You have no idea how true that is. "Tell me anyway."
He thought. "You may call me Yuras. My work was in Special Duties. Counterinsurgency."
Of course that meant capturing Czir found beyond the bounds of their assigned settlements or workhouses. Trying them in sham courts as combatants responsible for every burned building, for every street killing. And worse.
She recognized this man's demeanor, even dead. She'd seen his type before. Pleasant, even affable, until the moment brutality was called for. Then inhuman.
A scene flitted through her mind, and she couldn't be sure she wasn't inventing it on the spot: Nouelle looking back as she fled. And this man, fully-fleshed, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he raised a pistol to the head of one of her bound neighbors.
"Y-Yuras, I have some questions about the night you first came here, to Óste."
The corpse laughed darkly. "How quickly you give yourself away. That's no longer the name of this place. Might I venture a guess as to who you are? And where I am?"
Let me guess--captured by guerrillas?
"I'm dead, aren't I?"
Nouelle jolted, but she said nothing.
"What you're doing, I've heard of this. There was even talk of training officers against it, so as not to betray our country after death." He smiled, a ghastly rictus. "It does seem silly now, I'll admit, from this side of mortality."
"You led this massacre, didn't you?"
His movement might have been a shrug. "I can't contest the word you use. I'm accustomed to slower, more intimate bloodshed. This was different."
"This was premeditated."
"Perhaps they don't send Special Duties for nothing. A village refusing tribute? Still, I'd have accepted surrender, resettlement. But when things are building to a bloodbath, it's safer to commit. Ambiguity kills soldiers."
She fought the urge to rebury this man while leaving him distilled. How long would his consciousness hold on?
"I'm looking for my sister," she said through her teeth. "She was taken from this place, on the day you destroyed us. Take me closer to her, and I'll send you back to your rest."
"Was she old enough? To know what was happening?"
"No. Practically a baby."
"Then yes, she would have been taken. Few of the youngest were intentionally killed. To Eskild, for processing. Then to the workhouses or adoption."
Nouelle swallowed. "Adoption?"
"Oh, surely you don't think the top brass believe that 'human stratum' canard. A Noratian mainlander is more different to me than we are to each other, you and I. A Czir baby might be raised a child of the Revolution. Or vice-versa," he added off-handedly. "How old would she be?"
"She'd be . . . she is eleven."
Yuras seemed surprised. "A great long while I've been dead, isn't it?"
She shrugged, though she knew he couldn't see.
On to Eskild, then. They would have records. Katty--she went somewhere. Even if Nouelle had to track down every damn Czir child they'd taken in, she'd find her, recognize her.
"El and I were the first to move here, did you know?" Yuras said. "Into a little cottage which had a windmill belted up to grind the grain. Quaint." He smiled. "We took one of those Czir babies. Ivva, we called her. Little firebrand. Never would stay where we put her. A natural guerrilla."
Nouelle's stomach tightened.
"She was El's pride, as if the girl were her own. We settled in, took my stipend, waited for another assignment. Waited still more. Before long we didn't even carry weapons. We joked we'd become Czir ourselves.
"When your people came, they shot me first. I remember dying now, bleeding out, that euphoria shooting through my mind when I faded. They knew I'd been the leader, just knew it by looking." Something approaching horror crossed his face. "They didn't spare the families, did they? I remember the pears little Ivva would bring back from the orchard, always for her mother and never for me."
Nouelle stood, vision fading at the edges, and stepped back. She put her hand over her mouth.
Beside Yuras, a grass-nourished stretch of earth like the one that had covered him. And, filling out the end of the row, another one half its height.
She felt weak. Her lungs wouldn't fill.
Because she knew, she knew where Katty was, for the first time in eight years.
As she dug, it was too much even to allow herself the hope that she might be wrong. Yuras spoke on through her work, but his speech went through her.
A little body was revealed. Even six years dead, Nouelle recognized her sister. There it was in her face; that insolence that had so bothered Nouelle before it had bonded them forever. That aggressive love.
Her people, her own countrymen and women, had done this. The guerrillas wouldn't have known her from a West Noratian, just another occupier. And, like their conquerors, they hadn't spared the children. On future days, perhaps, she'd wonder: Could she forgive them? Were they only mirrors of the brutality they'd seen, or did they bear responsibility for where they'd let their rage and grief take them? But in this moment, she thought only of the ones who had set this in motion.
Yuras flinched only slightly as Nouelle's right boot came down. Her first step dislocated his jaw. His skull gave on the fourth.
"You bastard. You bastard." She wiped her cheek, and was surprised to find it dry. Her ankle throbbed. "You had to take one last thing for yourself, didn't you?" A man like Yuras was toxic--even his compassion killed.
Nouelle returned to her sister.
Catherine had been given a sky-blue burial in the dress she'd been wearing when she died.
"I came back for you," she whispered, and she let herself cry. "I came to find you, Sister."
She had found her.
Katty had lived her own life for two years. Nouelle couldn't imagine those days outside of vignettes that were no better than the ones she remembered from home: gifts of meadow cat-tails or fruit to her new mother (fallen and discarded or charmed from its harvesters), clenched-fist anger when told to wash up, cackling laughter as the shepherd dogs and half-tamed mouser tabbies fled before handfuls of thrown pebbles.
Those years were her own life. Nobody could steal them as they'd stolen away her adolescence and womanhood, not for themselves but to waste, to throw to the wind like spirit.
Nouelle's hand trembled as she reached for the receiver in her pocket. She put a collection vial into it, pushed firmly until it clicked into place. She knelt and watched her sister.
In her mind's eye she saw that mouth moving, her dead sister speaking to her in confusion or, worse, fear. Eyes that no longer existed trying to focus and lungs that were half earth laboring in vain to fill themselves. Nouelle struggling for closure, to speak to this addled, depleted spirit wrenched away from nonbeing.
Another interrogation. One no less cruel or selfish than any other she'd conducted to get here.
She put the vial away, closed her eyes and breathed.
Whatever peace or agitation or oblivion the dead kept, it was her sister's to keep. Neither would she exhume her parents, even if she could bear to explore that hillock of the dead to find them. These bodies would rest. She could give them that.
In the end, Nouelle found a better burial for Catherine than she'd first been given, in earth shaded by green alder, near the sound of birdsong.
Later she sat, watching the setting sun not a hundred meters from the place where she was born. The place she had left in blood and fear, the place she had come back to. She owed this view to a dead woman and a dying man, and she thought of her travel companions now--and this surprised her--without regret. She sat and remembered and she imagined the mingled essence of the dead of Óste surrounding her, welcoming her home. She'd be far away from this place by the same time tomorrow, she knew, but for just the moment, she was here forever.
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