The Fourth Chapter
After a movement has devoured the empire that oppressed its brothers and sisters, its swords and daggers, now no longer useful, are dulled by the hides of greed and complacency. - Gnomon, Political Power: Ever Present on the Cosmic Lazy Susan.
Fawn was roused from a perfectly tranquil slumber by what she was certain to be the midnight antics of the roving night watch. The younger girls had become increasingly bold with their pranks to annoy the older women sharing the barracks with them; she supposed it was payback for unleashing a bit of her angst on the girls, though fairly benign in her opinion. Ribbing and teasing of the youth and slick-sleeves had always been a tradition in the military, and she doubted it would end with some late night turnabout on their part, no matter how severe.
Fawn threw herself out of bed, stumbled across the room and slammed her fist against the door’s activation device; ready to strangle any children she found behind it. Her narrowed eyes shifted from left to right down each side of the empty hall, though in the late hours of the night how could one be sure of what they saw or heard? And she had seen things, and heard things, but told no one, especially back then; voices that were loud enough to be understandable if one knew the language in which they spoke, of course. The voices, she knew she had heard, but the presence of beings, a breath against the soft, colorless, hair on the cheek could never be proven, not even to herself. Sometimes, it was the faintest embrace by a powerful unseen hand, or a depression on the unicorn comforter, as if something was sitting, watching, guarding perhaps.
With nothing found from her tepid investigation, she quickly found her way back underneath the sheets once more and tried to sleep. However, the now quickened pace of her heart kept her eyes open and her thoughts frantic. She rolled over and palmed a pink dragon clock radio, a ridiculous present her friend Lechwe had picked up for her birthday a few weeks back. As she sighed and rolled on her back, she stared up at Lechwe’s rack above her. What seemed to be hours, were found to be seconds when Fawn glanced over at the clock, once again. Finally, when she had enough of the snores of the other women mocking her, she threw the sheets aside and headed to the weight room.
The indoor weight room at the barracks was modest; a few flat benches with their centers split open, a cushion-less leg press machine, and an incomplete set of rusty weights and barbells. Many of the younger girls here had no time for training on their own, even if they were a long way from boot camp. An old dusty fan spun silently from a grimy windowsill, pulling in the dank night air. The naked light above gave everything a sickly yellowish color as it fought desperately to stay illuminated. The chilly air being drawn in by the fan could not suppress the stench of sweat soaked that deeply into the tiles; the entire room was crowded with a funky odor that had been squatting in there for some time. It would take more than a bucket of hot soapy water to even begin to clean this place up, and the war with mildew would never end until they tore the place apart.
Fawn slapped a couple of forty-five pound plates on each side of the rusty bar and lay down on the bench to stretch. Her chest heaved in and out as she breathed in deeply of the air that was now heavier somehow, swinging her arms in a winding motion. Then she sat up and pulled her gray Army hoodie over her head, revealing surgery scars and her tattoos, her Heavy Infantry Emblem, several other Army themes, and a Navy design that had been drawn by a lost friend. Her Navy stamp was always disheartening to her as it reminded her of, what she thought now, more joyous times. She never realized how good she had it as a Naval Officer, until she was humping around with the Army in hells abandoned by those that had built them. As disjointed and senseless as the Navy seemed to be at times, the Army was much worse; unnecessary maintenance checks, flip-flopping middle management and manning issues were only a few.
As she began to lift the weight vigorously her mind drifted back to days at the Academy. Back then her younger brother, Alpha, was probably still bragging to his friends that his sister would probably be pilot. It made her a little sad when she thought of what he might be telling his friends now; a hot-headed former Ensign that failed to get her Space Warfare Pin on time? An officer that never even knew the meaning of military bearing, everyone probably thought she was a clown, too tall in every uniform she wore, arms like a distance-runner’s legs, the temper of eight angry drunks, and the medicine only made her indifferent and sick. The act of treading across her wishes and ideals was not something she could ignore, even with pills. Fawn was unable to articulate to anyone why she felt this way, knowing she would come off as ‘another narcissist bitch’ as she had heard the receptionist refer to another girl, a girl who had the same cynical look in her eye as she did.
In mid-lift Fawn was interrupted by the night rover peeking in to see if the space was ‘secure’. She wanted to toss the bar aside, weights and all, to strangle the preteen, but the look on the girl’s face made her pause. The tips of her garish smile stretched to the corners of her eyes, or did her long slit-like eyes stretch to the corners of her mouth? Fawn could hardly believe she was looking at a human; she quickly racked the weights and leapt from the bench. As she approached the still opened the doorway, she found that the hall was empty. When she heard the sounds of voices she decided to creep into the hall. As Fawn moved towards the direction of the sound, she thought the hushed conversation mention her name.
With her shoulder pressed firmly against the corner she peeked around and saw two girls conversing with each other; their mouths moved, but no sound came out, the voices seemed to be coming from her own mind. They had no antlers, yet their ears had been removed, like her own had many years ago. It was then that Fawn realized her own pair of antlers was missing. Fawn called out to the girls, but they ignored her. As she extended her hand, Fawn’s fingers slipped through the girl’s black hair and into her skull.
Inside Fawn could feel mechanisms moving about in regular intervals, oiled gears and springs working underneath the tips of her fingers. She parted the girl’s hair to find out exactly what she had felt; absurdly oiled clockwork, the lubricant oozed down the back of the girl’s neck. When the girl turned around she had the face of an adolescent Flechette, pale and round, the eyes of a child who had little remorse. Fawn fully emerged from behind the corner to find the girl this false Flechette was speaking to was a much younger version of herself. Her adolescent ectype looked up at her with large violet eyes, framed by a beige and freckled face and a closed mouth grin straddled by a pair of dimples.
For some time they stood like that, searching each other’s eyes for something, until the younger Fawn opened her grin to a grim toothy smile. Every one of her teeth was covered in a gray sludge. As she took a step closer, so did Fawn take a step back; slowly the two eased down the hall. She stopped just before Fawn came to her room. Then the younger version of herself gave her a friendly wave as she disappeared into the darkness of Fawn’s barracks room.
Fawn entered, but saw no one there but her sleeping roommates. She crept over to her bed and pulled back the covers tentatively, finding no one, there was no place left for the girl to be, there were no closets and their sea bags were stuffed underneath both bottom racks. As Fawn lay on her rack she could feel a presence moving in the darkness. Internally, she was arguing with herself, knowing it was foolish to be fearful of an odd collection of shadows, but she knew there was someone else with her. She kicked Lechwe’s rack above her and whispered the woman’s name. She eased out of her own bed and curled her fists tight as she peered into Lechwe’s rack. She poked the woman with a knuckle, causing dust and a vulgar odor to be pushed from underneath the blanket; it was like the rotted intestines of some animal had been dumped into her rack. She opened her hand slowly and drew back the covers.
“Lechwe,” Fawn said. As she pulled back the blanket she revealed the atrophied corpse of her friend. Her purple hair looked pale gray, thinned and frayed in the moonlight. She was eternally locked in a horrified scream, her nails were scratching into the furrowed column that was her throat. Fawn backed away and turned to her other friends; they too were preserved cadavers screaming silence. Feeling a cold breath on her neck she whirled to find a tall, hooded silhouette, looming over her.
“The fuck!” Fawn said. She prepared to throw a punch to where she perceived this stranger’s face to be, but Fawn’s fist opened against her will and interlaced in the same hand of this presence she perceived to be her enemy. She struggled to free her limb, but was drawn closer to the figure, its strength was unbelievable.
“Get off me,” Fawn said. The being opened its long dark coat, revealing the glinting angles and corners of an assortment of guns and knives. With its free hand it drew a gun, Fawn had never seen it, but its design was familiar. As Fawn leapt onto its long arm to perform a flying arm bar, it fired away at the walls of her room; they crumbled like clay pigeons peppered with shot, leaving them surrounded by fine brass machinery like the insides of some extravagant clock. Fawn fell to the ground when the creature snatched its arm away. As she stood she was grabbed by the neck and turned towards ticking mechanisms. There were dozens of brilliant dials and alien symbols all over the instruments, of which Fawn knew nothing about, nor what they recorded. There were golden placards beneath certain devices, with titles engraved there. Antikythera, Helepolis, Irdieden, there were more, but another stood out, Aeolipile.
Thinking she was in a dream Fawn shook her head and squeezed her torso. With absurdly long arms the coated being lifted Fawn off the ground. A frosty mist was spewed from where its mouth should have been within the darkness of its hood, this close Fawn could see the large blue eyes, like topaz, unblinking, but all seeing. It began to speak with a husky voice that at first Fawn thought she could not understand.
“I come to offer an even trade,” it said. The being had replaced its gun and now held Fawn before it, supporting her underneath her arms as one would hold a child, even with her considerable height she was still several feet off the ground, but the floor seemed to be moving now, rising to meet her feet, and not evenly. Things that could be called hands at a stretch, were reaching upward, snatching at her. The golden machinery was being obscured by a darkness heavy with gnashing and chaos.
Fawn glanced back to the thing in the coat. “What the fuck do you want?” Fawn said.
“We will be the bonds that will tie each other to our respective desires,” It said.
“I still don’t understand,” Fawn said.
“An equal exchange,” It said. “We each discard our separate lives without agency, for a single life giving us our greatest wish.
“And how the hell could you know my greatest wish?” Fawn said.
And for once its eyes of topaz sneered. “Because you have always told me what you desired, those long nights when sleep was slow to come, we would speak the ways in which no one else could,” It said. “About sports, school, boys, but most of all death. I was there when you wished to die, and I shed grateful tears that you did not, that you could not. I grieved for your family, because you had run out of tears.”
“But-“ Fawn said.
“It is only I that speaks your language, no other,” It said. “But there will be others that come to twist your power, as those from your world would try and twist mine.”
And he was right, even now Fawn could hear them grumble, jealous of having not been the first chosen so many years ago. Yet they waited, so that perhaps if she lingered or rejected the words of the one who held her now, they would get a chance at her, use her. They had never kept Fawn company on those frigid deck watches in the tundra; they had never listened to her cry for days after the news of her family’s passing had found her. But it had, he had, yes, she was sure it was a he now, a brother to replace the one she had lost and the one she had hope was still alive.
Fawn shook her head, as if to ward off the others. “What do I have to do?” she said.
His voice was clearer now. “Our worlds are close now,” he said. “Closer than they’ll ever be. Name me, so that I may name you.”
The mass of chaotic darkness was growing; the hordes of individuals were beginning to ally themselves, that they could dethrone this single usurper. Fawn was unsure what to call this coated man, which had been much more to her it seemed. She had called him nothing even as a child, even though she knew he was there, and had always been there. When she had fought he was there, a reassuring hand, a rousing cheer, when she rested he was a warm thigh to rest her head against, his own heart, much bigger than her own, beat just after his.
“I, I don’t know what to call you,” Fawn said, looking back at the rolling clouds pushing their way toward the two.
“Say it; say the name which you deem fit to give me. And I shall be yours forever,” he said.
“Uh,” Fawn said, glancing down at the being gazing up at her. “Long Arms,” Fawn said, finally. And the hordes withdrew instantly, leaving them only with the loud hum of large engines and machinery.
“And you Wolf Maiden, will be Vulpicide the Fox Eater,” Long Arms said as he embraced her tightly. Even though his breath seemed cold, Fawn could feel nothing but warmth from his body. Then she hugged him back, knowing that forces would come to rip him away from her too, but this time, she would not allow it to happen.