Pages

FICTION: Godspeed By Mindy MacKay  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Chapter One



The sun had long since set on the People's Republic of X. The clock in the middle of Capital Square was closing in on curfew. First Secretary Mathias Luto sat in the Subsidy Pub with his head on the table, swimming from an excess of drink. The busboy wiped off the edge of the table, nudging Matt to get him to sit up. "Closing time, comrade. You know the rules. You made them. Curfew in fifteen."

"Tell the owner I'll give the bar an after-hours pass for the night. And tell the bartender to get me another vodka. Could you do that for me, Frankie?"

"Even if you gave us a pass, nobody here wants to work past curfew. Not when we're not getting the extra pay for it." Frankie's tone was colored with bitterness.

Matt looked up at him, raising his head an inch off the rough planks of the table. "Whatever happened to us? We were best friends as children. You were like the Razumihin to my Raskolnikov. Whatever happened?"

Frankie sighed. "One: I finally got around to reading Crime and Punishment, and let me tell you, comparing yourself to Raskolnikov doesn't give much credit to your morals or your sanity. Two: you became dictator and I got assigned a shit job busing tables. That's what happened."

Matt groaned.

"Come on. Up you go." Frankie dragged him to his feet and guided him into the restroom. "Clean yourself up," said the busboy, leaving Matt to his business.

The second Frankie was gone, Matt collapsed over the sink, gripping the edges of the basin with white knuckles as he vomited. He came up gasping for breath. He could hardly stand to look himself in the mirror.

Only twenty-one and he looked like death. He was pale and rail-thin, with bruise-purple insomniac shadows between his bloodshot blue eyes and gaunt cheekbones. A cold sweat plastered his dark hair to his face and the collar of his dress shirt to his neck. He knew he would only continue to deteriorate if he kept working himself into a stupor and drowning the resultant stress in booze. Sometimes he wondered if ruling the young nation was worth the slow death he was inflicting on himself.

Then he remembered his mother, the treacherous queen, and the way she'd run the Empire before he'd replaced it with the Republic, and thought, yes. Completely worth it.

His stomach churned. He would have thrown up again if he'd eaten anything that day other than toast and coffee between meetings. He cursed himself for getting so drunk. More than the hangover or the lost work output, he dreaded the total loss of control over his own thoughts that was due to come over him in three…two…

There it was.

Thoughts of Carlot Nash clawed their way out of the recesses of his mind and there was nothing he could do to force them back.

* * * * *

"Where ya headed, good lookin'?"

The call girl whistled for him a few blocks away from the palace of which he'd just snuck out. She couldn't have known what he looked like, as he hadn't turned to face her, but compliments won customers. Anything for business.

He ignored her and quickened his pace, which was difficult considering his slight limp. She persisted.

"Oi! Why're you walking funny?"

He gritted his teeth. The limp had been given to him by his mother, who'd caned him viciously after she caught him taking extra rations to a prisoner in her dungeon. If she found out he'd left the castle when he was supposed to be confined to his chamber, there'd be hell to pay, but he didn't care. He was in no mood to deal with the queen and the heartlessness she was trying to instill in him.

Or, for that matter, the advances of prostitutes.

"Oi! I'm talking to you!"

"What?" He swiveled around to face her at last. He made a conscious effort to hide the pain in his expression with anger, but at the sight of her, he lost his façade to awe.

She was pretty in the most peculiar sense of the word, with a certain strangeness and exaggeration to her proportions: huge, upturned green eyes, full, pouty lips, a small shin and high forehead, and a figure that was thin but not deathly so--the common descriptor of the season was 'fashionably malnourished'. Had any of her features been pushed a degree further to the extreme--her eyes made wider, her lips fuller, her body thinner--she would have been an eyesore to behold, but as things stood, she was magnificent, an angel in showy shawls and heels with butter-blonde curls spilling just past her shoulders like divine light.

She peered into his face and smiled apologetically. "Oh, sorry kid. Didn't realize you were too young."

"I'm eighteen," he blurted, unsure of whether her beauty or his desire to do something his mother would kill him for had kindled his sudden interest in her service.

"Me too," she said. "I'm Carlot Nash, unless you've got something else you wanna call me."

"Carlot," he tested out the syllables. "Is that short for something?"

She cringed. "Carlotta. Blegh. Nobody calls me that."

"Understandable. Mathias, but nobody calls me that, either. Matt."

"Charmed." Her eyes, despite their wideness, betrayed no emotion. He couldn't tell whether she really was charmed or not.

"How much do you charge?"

"The queen and her men, bless their black hearts, have decreed girls like me can charge up to fifty an hour. Fifty! How am I supposed to live on that?" Her gaze slid off to one side and she exhaled. "I wouldn't tell the government, though, if you happened to slip me fifty-one by mistake."

"Assuming I only need you for an hour," he replied.

She frowned. "Need me? Need? Who in their right mind needs a whore?" She spoke more to herself than to him, but he didn't mind, occupied with marking the ups and downs of her speech in that clipped, rough accent of hers. "I'll tell you who, the same kind of person who needs to gamble and drink and sneak out past his bedtime. What did your parents do to you, boy?"

"Well, my father--"

She thunked him softly on the head. "That was a rhetorical question. So, which way is your place?"

"Can we head to yours?" He wasn't keen on having his mother slaughter both him and an innocent prostitute.

"This way, then." She slung an arm around his shoulders and steered him around a corner and down a dingy street.

Carlot's apartment was situated in the violent south side of the capital. It was a long walk from the royal district, but she made it worth Matt's while with clever smalltalk and crude jokes. The apartment itself was deplorable, a cramped cube of space on the top floor of its building. There was no electricity due to Carlot's overdue rent, but at least the bed worked, a fact she proved when she pushed him playfully onto it and the frame didn't break. She wasted no time in undoing his pants and was soon pleasuring him with her mouth while he gasped, his hands balling into fists full of thin, ragged blanket. Every so often, she glanced up at him, unblinking. Her gaze grabbed him by the guts and twisted. What did she want? Feedback? Approval? She was unreadable. All he could readily discern was her beauty, penetrating as a knife. She seemed far too pure to be doing this. He almost felt guilty when he spent himself down her throat.

The second she let up, he took her by the hand and pulled her onto the bed with him, holding her around the waist with a crazed desperation in his grip. At first she gasped and writhed, but then reciprocated, wrapping her arms around him and resting her chin on his shoulder. "You've had me for an hour and you only have twenty-seven in your wallet," she said.

"How did you know?"

"You can pay me next time we meet," she offered, not addressing his question.

"Ensuring repeat business, are you? You clever girl."

She chuckled. "I don't ask just anyone to continue seeing me. Only the ones that hold me like this."

She was still curled up in his exposed lap when a thin yellow book on her nightstand caught his eye. He picked it up and read the cover: The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. "What's this?"

She glanced over her shoulder. "Oh, nothing. I knicked that from a library when I was twelve. I used to be such a klepto. Balls if I know what that book is even about."

"Can I read it?"

"No."

She was noticeably tense from that point. After another fifteen minutes of cuddling in silence, she showed him to the door. As he started for home, a burning curiosity brewed within him. What could be in that book that she didn't want him to know?

* * * * *

Matt snuck out of the palace again the following weekend while his mother was away on national business. No sooner had he set foot on Carlot's doormat than she threw the door open to admit him.

"I could still feel the ghosts of your hands on my body hours after you left me the last time," she said. "I'll waive part of your fee if you keep coming back."

"Don't you think it's a little soon to decide you like me that much?" he asked.

"Why not? It's not like I'm saving myself for anyone else." She embraced him and pressed her lips to his, her kiss tender and patronizing and filled with everything missing in his life.

It was hard as hell for him to stick a syringe full of sedative into her back and knock her out so he could read the book whose contents she was so determined to keep from him.

The Communist Manifesto rendered his mouth dry and his stomach in knots from the first page. Why, Karl Marx, why didn't I ever think of this? He wondered. This--this is the answer! The end of oppression, of exploitation…of my mother, the tyrant queen.

Carlot was still asleep when Matt finished leafing through the Manifesto. He sat next to her on the bed and watched the peaceful rise and fall of her chest before reaching out to stroke her hair. Her eyes fluttered open as he touched her. For a fleeting second, he was seized by fear. What must she think of me? That I drugged and date-raped her?

Then her lips broke into a soft smile and she said, "You read the Manifesto, didn't you?"

"How'd you know?"

"I can see it in your eyes."

He believed that. He certainly felt like he was looking at the world through different eyes.

* * * * *

Matt was well aware he was rushing into his affair with Carlot. The voice of reason in the back of his head begged him to slow down, but his id wouldn't allow it. The thrilling high she sent his body and mind on had, within a matter of weeks, become an addition to him, and he figured he might as well take his fill of her before the psychotic queen murdered him and half the court.

On a rainy evening, Matt showed up at Carlot's doorstep unannounced. He'd been seeing her for a month at his discounted rate and had never seen her as angry as she looked when she opened the door.

"There's a rumor on the street," she said, "that Carlot Nash has been fucking the crown prince of the Kingdom of X." Her voice was high and agitated, moving up and down the musical scale like an amateur's violin. One of her hands rested on her hip. From the other swung a half-empty bottle of gin. "Have you ever considered how I might feel about screwing a figurehead of the empire that treats me like dirt?"

"You're drunk, Carlot."

"Don't 'you're drunk' me!" She pointed an accusatory finger at him and said, "Your mother doesn't care about poor people! She would have me go on living in these deplorable conditions until I catch disease and die! And you're no better!"

"No, Carlot, I'm--"

"Ever since the goddamned state of the economy forced e into this business, all I've wanted was to have a future secured for me. Some sort of pension, or a safety net. And I want the straight-laces in the streets to look upon me as an equal--"

"So do I!" He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her out of her rave. "I want all of that for you, too, Carlot. I'm not like my mother. I care about you. I care about the proletariat. The Manifesto--your ideals--have opened my eyes."

"My ideals? I've told you, that book doesn't mean a thing to--"

"Don't try and tell me you've owned it this long without reading it. Don't pretend you weren't also seduced by its ideals. Don't pretend it's anything less than the glue holding us together." He let go of her and added, "With all due respect, comrade."

She took a deep, shuddering breath and blinked back the mist forming in her too-big eyes. "The crown prince calling me 'comrade'? Me?"

"You're nothing less."

She threw her arms around him, straining his ribs with the force of her embrace and burying her face in his front. He ran his fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp, cupping the back of her head, drawing her closer until she rose up on tiptoe and urged his mouth open with a fervent kiss. "For the record, it's not an ideal or a manifesto sealing us together," she told him between one kiss and the next. "I love you. That's all there is."

He held her around the waist and kept her pressed to his body, relishing her warmth, her heartbeat, the heaving of her small, firm breasts against his chest. She untucked his shirt from the back of his pants and slipped both hands inside. He tensed as she ran her hands up his back, exploring the scars left by his mother's punishment.

"You were flogged?"

"It's how my dear old mum settles things. It's how she demands obedience." He exhaled. "If you're repulsed--"

"Me? Nah." Her voice had faded to a whisper. "Pissed off is more like. First chance I get, I'll poison the old bitch for you. Or take her head off."

"Not if I kill her for you first."

"Well ain't you the biggest fuckin' romantic." She pinned him down to the bed, undid his pants, hiked up her skirts, and took him into her warm, soft core.

Throughout their intercourse, all of their dirty talk was centered around the subject of killing Matt's mother.

* * * * *

His head was spinning by the time she'd finished with him. As he came down from his endorphin high, she lay snuggled against his side with her hand up the front of her shirt. She ran her fingers down his skin, pausing to trace the outline of a puckered bullet scar low on his stomach. "You were shot, too? Was that also your mother's work?"

"Might've been."

"My God, she's a monster. To shoot her own son!"

"She wasn't aiming for me," said Matt. "She had a beef with a servant girl and tried to shoot her. I took the bullet."

"Oh." She looked up at him. "Did you like her?"

"Like a sister."

"Sweet." She shifted so her head rested over his heart. He put an arm around her. "Am I the only whore you do business with?" she asked.

"The first and only."

"I'd like us to be more than just a whore and a customer," she said. "Instead of Carlot is fucking the prince, I'd like it to be Carlot has taken a lover."

"Hell, I'll marry you if it means we can be together. I'll marry you next Tuesday if you don't object."

"I'm out of town next Tuesday," she said. "Perhaps the Tuesday after."

He didn't believe her. The hesitation in her voice gave away her lie.

And to think, he used to be unable to read her.

But why would she stage a vacation?

Determined to find out, he showed up to her apartment the following Tuesday. Her door was unlocked, and upon further inspection, her flat checked out empty. "Huh. Maybe she was telling the truth," he muttered to himself.

But surely she wouldn't have left the door unlocked unless she expected to be back momentarily.

He was about to leave the building when the sound of voices from the basement caught his attention. Treading as quietly as he could, he followed the sound to its source and nudged the basement door open a crack to give himself a clear visual.

Inside, sitting and standing around a circular wooden table, was a jeering crowd, all drinking and raising fists with militant enthusiasm. Leading the group was Carlot, walking around the circle of bodies and crying out, loud, clear, and with conviction, "The eve of retribution is upon us! We will take back our rights as citizens! We will bring down the cruel empire that was built on our own backs! Comrades! Brothers, sisters all, who's with me?"

The crowd exploded in cheers. Drunken men and women threw themselves upon Carlot, raising their glasses to her, saluting her as Little Mother Revolution. The pure energy she exuded stole the breath right out of Matt's chest. It wasn't until she looked directly at him that he realized he'd lost his grip on the doorknob and allowed the door to swing open.

She broke free of the mob and closed the gap between them in a few quick strides. Stepping out of the room, she closed the door behind her, isolating herself with him, "What are you doing here?"

"Why didn't you invite me?"

"Because I didn't want you risking your life at riots and rallies!"

"Well that's just too bad, isn't it? Because I'm joining up."

"You can't!" she pleaded. "There's a full-scale war brewing, and I can't let you step into the crossfire. I'll quit myself if I have to. If that's what it takes to keep you out of it. We’ll go away together. Yes, that's it."

"Your comrades need you, Carlot."

"And I need you!"

"It's settled, then: you leave them, and I'll leave you."

Her eyes hardened. "You drive a hard bargain, Excellency." He flinched at the title. "Fine." She wrenched open the door and led him in. "Comrades!" She walked over to the crowd and banged on the table to get everyone's attention. Once all had fallen silent, she trust Matt into the center of the group and said, "I'd like you to meet our newest brother."

* * * * *

Life away from Carlot and the revolution became dull and meaningless for Matt. When he couldn't sneak past the castle walls, he snuck wine from the cellar to make the hours pass faster.

She'd consumed him, and although he was working for the greater good, he couldn't deny the grenade-fueled riots he helped her put together were less than scrupulous.

But who was he to change the ways of the rebellion? In a crazy world, only the crazy are sane, he reasoned, and if the empire's tyranny refused to relent, neither could the resistance's violence.

He laughed as he thought of it one night while stuck in the castle. Isn't this a little backward? Shouldn't the boy be the reckless revolutionary, the girl the ingénue?

In his wanderings through the halls, he passed a servant girl who couldn't be older than twelve, sobbing on hands and knees, trembling from an encounter with the queen's cane.

The inhumanity.

"Mother," muttered Matt. "I'll kill her!"

"Watch it, there." Francis Dencourt appeared from around a corner and steered Matt away from the weeping casualty. "I hope you don't take yourself seriously when you say that."

"So what if I do, Frankie?" Matt shot back. "It's about time somebody did something about her."

"Something, yes, but murder isn't the answer! Even if she is a right foul bitch."

Matt half-forced a laugh. Of everyone at court, he got along best with Frankie, even if the boy could be a bit too much of a moralist for Matt's taste.

In an immoral world…

"Well, tell me if you think up a better answer, Frankie. Until then, I think I'd rather kill her."

"And what? Sell your soul to the devil just to have her off your back? You can't do this, Matt. You keep up with this conspiracy of yours, and I'll spill the beans about where you disappear to."

Matt choked. "You know? About Carlot?"

"Who?" asked Frankie. "I'm talking about your commie club. What are you talking about?"

"You say one word to anyone and you're dead, hear me?"

"Love you like a brother, Your Majesty."

"Fuck you."

"Godspeed."

* * * * *

The end of the next month had Matt coming home late night after night, covered in dust and debris from riots in the streets. Sometimes blood. For weeks, the queen ignored his behavior, taking out her obvious frustrations on the servants.

By the first day of winter, he'd lost count of the number of rallies he'd helped organize. He came home with his eye blacked from being punched by a royal guard thinking he was in the clear, but when he slipped through the servants' entrance, the queen was standing in the corridor, waiting up for him. Her eyes were stern and she wore a small, condescending smirk.

"I hear a rumor," she said, "that the crown prince of X has taken up with subversive ideals…and whores."

Months ago, he would have quaked in his boots, flinched in anticipation of the whip, but he had no fear of his mother now. He had Carlot. He had a refuge from the pain. He had a purpose.

He smirked right back at her. "Yeah? What are you going to do about it? Torture me? Go on then, see what I care!"

"Capital idea, my dear. Right then, to the dungeon with you." She caught him around the wrist and began to drag him down the hall, but he snatched his hand back.

"Unhand me, Mother! I'll follow you freely and gladly."

"Good then. I hope you're ready."

"Try me." He was sure he could handle whatever was coming next, but as they reached the dungeon and the queen heaved the door open, when whatever was coming next turned out to be Carlot secured to the rack, his resolve crumbled.

Her whole body was tense and trembling from the strain of the device. She was gagged with a rag to stifle her screams, and she bit down in agony on the cloth as the guard working the rack gave the crank a whirl.

"Let her go!" Matt made a break to rush to her aid, but a couple of castle guards seized him and held him back.

"It really is mad, what you've put me through," said the queen. "What you've done to the reputation of this empire. You've waged open warfare against your own country, and now…now this. Well, I suppose if this doesn't beat all this nonsense out of you, nothing will." She bent him over another torture apparatus and gave the guard working the rack a signal. He lifted the axe at his feet. Matt heard his mother pull a switch from her billowing skirts, but he didn't feel it come down.

He didn't feel anything after Carlot's head hit the floor.

* * * * *

The fluorescent lights in the bathroom of the Subsidy flickered and buzzed unpleasantly, sickening Matt all over again. He tried to banish the image of Carlot, tortured and weeping, decapitated and dead, from his mind, but it refused to leave him.

Even after he'd long since avenged her.

Even two years after he'd beheaded his own mother and established the socialist paradise Carlot had dreamed of.

Even two years after he'd turned the social structure of X upside down, filled his cabinet with peasants and filled the menial labor force with the former royal court and served justice.

He trudged out of the restroom and into the darkened bar room. Everyone had left except Frankie, who leaned against the bar twirling his keys, waiting to lock up and go home. "Frankie," said Matt, remembering something from years past, "did you ever sell out my revolution to my mother?"

"No, I would never."

"Just making sure."

"You okay, Comrade?"

"No."

"Oh, what's wrong?"

"What do you think? I have all the power in this goddamned country and it doesn't make me happy."

"I'm sorry," Frankie called after him as he walked out of the Subsidy. "Goodnight and Godspeed, comrade."



Chapter Two



Godspeed, comrade.

The words echoed in Matt's mind as he turned onto the sidewalk. Those same words had been Carlot's last to him, after her final rally and before her execution.

You have to let go. You have to let go. He repeated the words in his head like a mantra.

Easier said than done.

He was barely a hundred feet out the Subsidy when the siren in Capital Square sounded for curfew. He continued walking at his slow pace. As head of state, he wasn't subject to arrest for breaking curfew, and he was in no rush to get back to the capital building, that painfully majestic structure converted from the palace he so resented. Besides, what would the cabinet say if he showed up drunk out of his mind?

As he turned a corner, he heard voices down an alley, all rough and male.

"Do we have to keep repeating the rules around here?"

"She knows the rules."

"Off with her head. It's standard regulation."

"What if she don't know the rules, boss?"

"Not know the rules? Impossible."

"Who even cares? Let's take her damn head off anyway!"

Matt tilted his head and peered into the alley before padding down to investigate. At the back of the alley stood four night patrolmen in black uniforms, two of them pinning a girl against a dumpster by her arms. Barely into her womanhood, she couldn't have been older than twenty, yet she put up no struggle, staring straight into a patrolman's brandished baton like an old woman ready to embrace death. Ordinarily, the emptiness in her eyes would have been enough to put an overwhelming scare into Matt, but in his drunken state, all he could do was laugh at the deep blue of the girl's hair. The vibrant color's contrast with her behavior was deliciously ironic.

"You, little missy, have just made my day." He cracked a grin. "Let her go, boys."

"You know the protocol, comrade. She could be a conspirator."

"Come on, be a pal," drawled Matt.

"But comrade--"

"Comrade! Comrade!" Matt mocked the officer in a high-pitched voice. "Look, I don't have time for this insubordination. For chrissake…gah…somebody take off this fucker's head for defying my direct order."

The officers looked at him quizzically for a long moment. Then one of them drew a large, heavy handgun from his belt and blew the offending patrolman's head clean off.

"Off with his, too, for hesitating," Matt added. Without delay, another officer took out his gun and fired into the first executioner's neck, but the blast failed to sever the head.

"And his, for messy work."

The last officer picked up the first casualty's gun and made quick work of his comrade.

"Excellent. Now get out of here and get back to work."

The officer gave Matt a salute and departed in the blink of an eye.

Matt looked back at the girl, expecting her to be horrified. Instead, she wore a bored expression. "What is this, Alice in Wonderland?" she asked.

He brought a hand to her chest. "Funny. I feel a heartbeat, but where's the heart?" He started to remove his hand, but she clapped her own over it, holding it in place.

"Don't you want to check more thoroughly?"

Oh, she was a bold one. "Well then." He smirked. "As long as I'm here with my hand held fast to your breast, we might as well get introductions over with. I'm Matt."

She cocked an eyebrow. "You're some hotshot authority with ultimate power over the police force of X and your name is Matt?"

"I know, I know, less than impressive. Mathias, actually, but nobody calls me that."

"Mathias Luto?" said the girl. "You're the First Secretary?"

"I see you keep up with politics. Be careful with that, girl, it'll be your destruction. Now, I don't believe I got your name."

"Luce."

"Just Luce, eh? Not Lucille?"

The hand she held over his dropped to her side, and his hand followed in turn. He paced a circle around her and invented, "Your father is a great fan of Lucille Ball, is he not? A patronizing fellow, I'll bet. Always expected great things of you. Am I right?"

Her eyes widened. "How do you know all this?"

"You just told me. Honestly, what else is Luce going to be short for?"

"I dunno. Lucía?"

"Nah, you don't look Spanish enough." He indulged in a laugh as she deadpanned. "Show me some I.D. and I'll write you a pass, lest anyone else in my guard try and kill you for breaking curfew."

"If that's what you like." She shrugged and handed over a card. "Won't do any good, though. I'm already dead."

His mind far too clouded for him to attempt to read into her words, he resigned himself to transcribing her information on a form he pulled from his pocket. Her full name was Lucille Milekovna Lutrova. The Milekovna, he noticed, was crossed out in permanent marker. He didn't ask about it.

Nineteen years old. Russian.

He handed the pass to her and sent her on her way without another word. He would have liked to stay and feel around for her heart some more, but his head was spinning and he feared he was going to be sick again.

* * * * *

He was standing at the front desk of Carlot's apartment building. He didn't know she lived there. They hadn't met yet. He was sixteen.

The old, stooped landlady handed him a key over the desk. "Room all yours," she said in thickly accented, broken English. "You no pay, I shut off heat. Have nice day."

* * * * *

Matt awoke with a start and nearly collapsed over the threshold of the capital building. He didn't remember falling asleep and had no idea how long he'd been sleepwalking.

"Matt!" The pretty blonde assistant working the administration desk left her post and rushed to his aid, letting him lean against her as she helped him into the building. "My God, you look terrible. What happened to you?"

"I'm fine, Cordera. It's nothing." He shrugged her off. She tried to take his hand, but he shoved both of his into his pockets. "What are you doing still awake?"

"Somebody's got to look after my brother's country while he's out getting debauched," said Cordera. "Speaking of which, in case you're unable to wake up for work tomorrow morning--"

"I'll be fine."

"But just in case, what's on the agenda?"

"Modernization. Conferring with the Russians about importing some of their technology. It's all in the notes I gave you."

"Right then. I'll study them. Now, off to bed with you."

He started toward his private chambers, then turned back to Cordera. "Hey. Did I ever rent an apartment in the slums back in the days of empire?"

"Not to my knowledge."

He sighed. "Thank you, sister."

"Goodnight, comrade." Before he could dismiss himself, she hugged him tightly, and though he didn't reciprocate, he couldn't push her away. Her concern for him was exasperating at times, but he couldn't blame her. He was her own flesh and blood and all she had.

And vice versa.

* * * * *

After Matt left for bed, Cordera set off to work poring over the copious notes he'd given her that morning. In the event that he was unable to carry out his duty, it would fall to her to negotiate with the Russians for the imported technology X so badly needed thanks to the backwards empire that had ruled the land before Matt installed the socialist Republic. In other countries, people were doing business over things called "social networks" on their mobile phones, but the citizens of X had yet to adopt mobile phones in the mainstream. Cordera knew if she blew these negotiations, it would set X back decades, and she suspected she would have to be the one to meet with the delegates. Matt would be too sick and hungover to work.

Cordera bit her lip with worry. Ever since Matt had stepped up as head of state, she had watched him destroy himself with overwork and drink. What tormented her most about it was, no matter how she tried to help him, she couldn't change his dangerous ways.

It wouldn't have bothered her so much if she didn't owe him her life so many times over.

* * * * *

They were three, always three: Matt, Zyler, and Cordera, head to head to head like sheep in a herd.

Cordera's friendship with Zyler was a result of their solidarity. She was a servant to the court of X; he was a kitchen boy. As children, they passed their spare moments together cursing the iron fist of Queen Alba and stealing sweets from the pantry. Mathias, as prince, was much less her natural ally, but loved her for the same reason his mother hated her.

Matt and Cordera shared the same father.

Sometime while Queen Alba was pregnant with Matt, the king took up with a maid and their affair resulted in Cordera. For years, the king kept his relation to Cordera a secret, but nothing stayed secret for long in the court of X.

Cordera was five when Queen Alba found out her husband had an illegitimate daughter. She confronted him over dinner in a jealous rage and stabbed him in the throat with a steak knife.

Matt was six and Zyler was eight, but they seemed much older as they took turns cradling a sobbing Cordera in their arms after she'd wandered into the murder scene on accident.

* * * * *

"All is forgiven," Queen Alba had crooned over her husband's dead body while Cordera watched helplessly, but years later, Cordera could tell by the bruises under her work clothes left by the queen's beatings that nothing was forgiven at all.

She was scrubbing the floor in the foyer when the queen's clinking footsteps approached from the hall. On hands and knees on the floor, Cordera kept her eyes down. Her jaw clenched when the queen's shoes entered her field of vision.

"You're getting sloppy, girl. I see you've missed a spot."

Cordera chewed on her tongue.

"I said, you've missed a spot. Answer me when I'm talking to you, girl!"

"I have not missed any spot."

"Why you--are you blind in addition to lazy?"

"Where, then, My Liege? Huh? Where?"

"Right here!" Queen Alba stomped on the ground, leaving a muddy track. "And here." Stomp. "And here." Stomp.

Cordera's resolve cracked, her rage boiling over. Her grip tightening around the rag she was using to clean, she stood and glared Queen Alba straight in the eye. At thirteen, she was small for her age, even standing at her full height, but the defiance coursing through her veins made her feel taller than she was, older…more powerful. "I will serve this house to the death if I must, and I will follow my orders to the letter if it buys me bed and board, but do not ask me to tolerate such blatant cruelty."

Queen Alba's slap came swift and hard, sending Cordera to her hands and knees again. "You filthy animal-child." She bent down and pulled up a floorboard. Cordera's resentment gave way to confusion. Huh?

"Did you know I keep a pistol hidden in the floor, girl?"

"No, madam." Cordera's mouth tasted of blood.

"Do you know why?"

"To defend yourself, madam?"

"I keep guns everywhere I keep servants, just in case I should ever have to use them." Queen Alba took up the pistol and weighed it in her hand.

Cordera's confusion turned to fear. Her whole body tensed, frozen with dread. Then…

"Mother? Cordera?"

Matt appeared at the mouth of a corridor. Without looking at him, the queen said, "Mind your business, Mathias. Nothing for you to see here." She raised the gun and took aim at Cordera.

"Leave my sister alone!"

"Stay out of this, Mathias, and you needn't get hurt."

"Cordera!"

Bang!

Cordera screamed. She thought for sure she was about to die, but then, a force pushed her out of the way. She hit the ground face down, shaken but intact. She couldn't say the same for Matt, though.

She looked up to find him kneeling next to her, his hand pressed to his stomach, blood seeping between his fingers. In knocking her out of the bullet's path, he'd been hit himself.

"By Jove! Matt!" Her voice came out a strangled squeak.

She thrashed, screaming his name, as a guard took hold of her and dragged her to the dungeon.

* * * * *

Zyler stopped by Cordera's dungeon cell as soon as his shift in the kitchen was up. "How's Matt?" she asked at once. "Is he all right? He's alive, right?"

"He'll be fine," said Zyler. "They took him to the infirmary and took the bullet out. Came out nice and clean. Then the queen flayed him half to death with the whip and had him thrown in a separate dungeon, but he'll live."

Cordera's breath hitched. "Will you tell him I'm sorry to have put him through all this trouble?"

"Sure thing."

Zyler left and came back within minutes with chocolates from the pantry and a message from Matt: "He says he doesn't even feel the pain when he's acting to protect his little sister."

"Send him my love," Cordera implored him.

He departed once more, but this time, did not return.

Cordera was released at the break of dawn. The guard who unlocked her cell door sneered and told her, "The queen caught your little boyfriend bringing your messages to the prince. She didn't like that, no, not at all. Got quite a thrashing, he did."

Her heart dropped into her stomach.

Zyler was absent from work for the next several days. When Cordera next saw him, he was confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.

* * * * *

In the dream, there was a woman standing in Matt's doorway. Her face was in shadows, but by the moonlight streaming through the window, he could make out the soft curls of her hair, yellow as wheat.

"It's been too long, comrade," she said as she approached the bed where he lay. He still couldn't see her face, but he felt her eyes rake over him. "You're a wreck without me."

"Then stay with me."

The mattress didn't shift at all as she joined him on the bed. Of course not. She's incorporeal. "You know I can't," she said. "I can only die for you, again and again and again, right in here." She placed a hand over his heart.

She ran her hand down his front until she reached the zipper of his pants and began to open it, but he grabbed her by the wrist, halting her progress. "Carlot, wait. Before we do this," he said, "look at me. I need to see your face again."

"Of course. Anything." She raised her head to gaze lovingly into his eyes. He screamed and pushed her off the bed at the sight of her features.

Cordera.

* * * * *

Matt dressed hastily and scrambled to the foyer, where he found Cordera toiling over his notes. "Have we ever fucked?"

Her lips parted. "No. Of course not. Matt, you've asked me that same question at least once a month since that fiasco with your girlfriend, what was her name again…?"

"Carlot." Matt sighed in relief and caught his breath. "Just a bad dream, I guess."

"She turned into me again, didn't she?"

"She looked a lot like you to begin with, now I think of it. Did you ever meet her?"

"No." Cordera shuffled the notes. Matt took them out of her hands.

"Have you slept?"

"No. I had to prepare for the conference. I didn't expect you to wake up until noon."

"Once again, you underestimate me." He straightened his tie. "Was I really that messed up last night?"

"More than you can imagine."

"Did I do anything?"

"Well, according to street intelligence, you ordered a party of guards to execute each other."

That's right.

It flashed back to him, what had happened in the alley. Could he really have caused so much murder in one night? Had he really become such a monster? Why would he do something like that?

Luce Lutrova, he recalled. Luce Lutrova with her blue hair and her dead eyes and her ratty shirt tucked into ratty jeans tucked into ratty boots.

"I think I also saved someone's life," he said.

"I wouldn't doubt it. Good luck and Godspeed," said Cordera. He left her for the conference, and she passed out with her head on the desk.

* * * * *

The meeting with the Russians went over splendidly. Despite the fact that he'd never seen a Smartphone in his life, Matt displayed a passion for technology and the Russian corporate were all too happy to export their products and knowledge to X.

As the conference ended, one of the delegates tapped Matt on the shoulder. "Ay, Comrade First Secretary, will we be seeing X at her first Olympic games this winter?"

"I've been working toward it for three years. Wouldn't pass it up for the world," said Matt. He beamed with pride at the respect the delegate showed him. He was easily the youngest man in the room and his nation was a trifle compared to Russia, but these people took him seriously. "Though I don't imagine my athletes will stand a chance against Russia."

"I wouldn't be too sure. If any other players decide to pull a Lucille Lutrova, who knows where our team may be by the time the games start?"

"Lucille Lutrova?" Matt repeated.

"My, you are out of the loop," said the delegate. "Lucille is--was--the most prodigious figure skater our team has ever seen, and several months ago, she disappeared. Didn't even explain why in her suicide note."

Matt thought back to the Lucille Lutrova he'd encounter and what she'd said about being dead. Could he have seen a ghost?

No, of course not. That was crazy talk. What he'd seen was a girl who'd faked her own suicide and defected her country.

But why?

And why would she flee to X of all places? Despite Matt's best efforts, the economy had yet to pick up.



Chapter Three



First thing when morning came, Luce went to the housing commission, where she registered under the false identity Jody Cadence and got assigned to an apartment in an agricultural town just outside the capital. She'd done her research before fleeing to X and knew better than to try and survive on the streets outside the system.

First, housing. Then, employment.

At the employment commission, she was given a job tending turmeric at a plantation for medicinal herbs. The work wasn't too involved and she took to it immediately. She had the patience for menial labor, and the warm sun above helped the hours in the gardens pass quickly. While she worked, she was careful to keep her pants tucked into her boots so nobody would see the prosthetic leg connected at her right knee. If the commission caught wind of her disability, they might take her out of the fields and move her into the pharmaceutical labs, where she would actually have to think about what she was doing. She'd never be able to handle that--enough was raging in her mind already, even when she wasn't daydreaming about Matt Luto.

She wondered what Russia would think if they knew she was alive, but would never again skate like she used to.

Better they think I'm dead.

* * * * *

Luce's first week in her new home was uneventful. Her apartment shared a bathroom with the adjacent unit, but not once did she encounter her neighbor. If the next apartment weren't blasting with music at all hours of the night, she would have wondered if anyone lived there.

It happened on a Friday when Luce came home from work. She arrived to the sound of grunge music through the wall and made straight for the shower, only to find it occupied.

A young, naked couple stood pelvis to pelvis in the shower, the man's back to Luce, the woman pressed between the tile wall and her lover's body. They hadn't bothered to draw the curtain, and even Luce's abashed stutter didn't slow them down.

Luce knew she should leave, but here feet were glued to the spot, her eyes likewise glued to the redheaded woman in the shower, or rather, to the rusty, creaking metallic prosthesis sutured at her left knee that, in her current position, supported most of her weight and the man's.

"Hey."

The sound of the woman's voice drew Luce's gaze to her smiling face. "Ain't you that Russian skater?"

Snapping out of her trance, Luce squeaked a feeble "I'm sorry!" and dashed out of the bathroom.

Minutes later, the redhead, now half-dressed in a brassiere and a pair of cutoff shorts, pushed through the bathroom door and into Luce's apartment. She still wore the same smile as she had while making love, not seeming offended in the least at Luce's intrusion.

"Sorry 'bout that," said the woman. "I know it ain't the right way to welcome new neighbors by fuckin' in the shower right in front of them, but hey, it's a living."

Luce nodded in understanding. "So you're a--"

"Whassamater? Never seen a one-legged prostitute before?"

"Can't say I have." Not that she had seen much of the world at all. She'd lived her life on the ice.

"Honored to be your first then! The name's Marion Oubliette. And I already know who you are, actually being able to afford a telly and all. You're Lucille Lutrova. But I thought you were dead! Homygod! Are you Lucille's ghost?"

"Please. Luce. And no, I'm no ghost."

"Then how come everyone thinks you're dead? How come you ain't off to the Olympics?"

Luce bent down and unzipped her boot, revealing her prosthetic.

Marion's grin faltered. "Ah, that's too bad. But hey, it's cool we match!" She gave a nervous sounding giggle. "How'd that happen?"

"Rival's boyfriend took a sledgehammer to my leg."

"Oh." The smile disappeared completely. "I'm sorry."

"I'm not. Dirty sport. I'm glad to be out of it." Luce took a pack of cigarettes from her bureau, shook one out, and lit up. "These cigarettes are shit, but at least they're free in the ration lines."

"Tell me about it." Marion bummed one of Luce's smokes. "Hey, I'm gonna make you a Jell-o loaf."

"You don't have to--"

"It's neighborly." With that, Marion retreated to her own room.

Luce laughed at herself once she was alone. Her little white lie sounded like a trifle compared to the true story behind her amputation, even if it was a half-truth.

* * * * *

"You know, people used to say I looked a lot like the late Queen Alba Luto," Marion recounted. She and Luce were standing at the counter in her tiny kitchen while she sliced and served the promised Jell-o loaf. "Here, see?" She pulled from a drawer a picture clipped from newsprint, showing an austere-looking woman in an extravagant gown.

Luce examined the photograph as she ate. The queen did resemble Marion. Both of them had the same red hair, the same curvy figure, the same round face and pale complexion. "Is this recent?" asked Luce. "This dress looks really dated."

"I know. Queen Alba was sooooo backward. She lived in like, the negative-billionth century and made everyone else do the same. You couldn't have picked a better time to move to X. We just now got set up with Internet. Come see!" She ushered Luce into the next room.

"I know what the Internet is."

"Oh, yeah. That's right. You're from Russia. I'll bet you got to surf the web all you wanted."

"Not really." Luce picked a book up off Marion's coffee table--100 Positions--and flipped through pages of diagrams of people in compromising positions. "What's this?"

Marion snorted. "How-to manual. I stole that from the censor back when Alba was in charge. First Secretary Luto has since legalized texts like this, but I'd have to pay out the nose for 'em with all the price-fixing. Protecting industry my ass."

"Can I borrow this?" asked Luce, holding up the book.

"Ooh, met anyone special?"

Warmth rose up in Luce's face. "I kind of ran into First Secretary Luto on the street. He saved me from the patrol, and I've been thinking about him on and off all week."

Marion gaped. "Oh my gosh! No! Stay away from him!"

Luce raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Okay. Y'know how I said I looked like the queen? Well, she was his mom, and apparently, she used to, like, beat him n'shit. Anyway, back when he was my customer, this one time, he got really roaring drunk, thought I was his mom, and hacked my leg off with a butcher knife outta my kitchen. He's a psychopath. Don't even think about him, and you'll stay alive much longer." Marion shifted from her metal foot to the flesh-and-blood one. "That said, I do get more customers than ever before. Guess I'm a niche-market commodity now, and boy, is there a niche market for mutilated, fucked-up people. Who'd have thunk, eh?"

"Actually," said Luce, "that doesn't surprise me at all."

* * * * *

At age thirteen, Luce didn't remember a life without skating. She had a routine, and it had gone on since further back than she cared to recall.

On Monday, she would show up at the rink, twirl and jump until closing time, eat a meager dinner, and throw up to make sure she would be light enough to jump the next day and look thin and beautiful in her costumes.

On Tuesday, she would take to the ice even harder. From the bleachers, her father would shout words of encouragement.

"Pull it in tighter on the salchow, Lucille!"

"I see some sloppy rotation."

"Faster, damn you, you're moving like a sloth!"

"Arms up! Your form looks like shit!"

"Damnit girl, the Olympics are only two years away and you're never going to make it at this rate!"

Wednesday was when things usually blew over. The accusations flew in hoarse, screaming tones.

From Luce's father: "You don't want it enough! You have all the talent in the world, but you don't give a shit, and that's why you'll go nowhere! I can drive you to lessons, but I can't make you give a shit!"

And from Luce: "Would you stop trying to use me to make up for your own failures? At my age, you were skipping speed skating practice and smoking pot! Don't you dare talk to me about giving a shit!"

Thursdays and Fridays passed in silence. No words were exchanged between Luce and her father, and she would tell herself again and again that she would never say another word to him right up to his dying day. She would pass her hours on the ice plotting to quit skating. To run away. Then she would remember that skating was the closest thing she had to a life. As her father told her time and time again, she wasn't intelligent, she had no skills, she couldn't hope to get a job that paid enough to support her, and she had no boyfriend to elope with and depend on.

Besides, if I give up, he wins.

Saturdays were solemn. Luce's father usually prayed in silent solitude before an altar comprised of a ship in a bottle that had belonged to his own late father, which he kept on the mantelpiece. What could he be praying for? Luce wondered.

Probably that I'll see the error of my ways. Bastard.

After her dinner and daily round of puking, she would retreat to her room and pray to her mother, who had passed of pneumonia before Luce started grade school.

Mama, please, if you can hear me, please kill him!

Sundays, Luce's father would buy her forgiveness with treats and affection. He'd take her to the movies, make her a lovely dinner, and tell her how beautifully she skated and how lost he would be without watching her dance on ice. "Splendid! Genius! Brava! My prodigy daughter." Sometimes he would even bake her a cake or buy her ice cream.

Every time the cycle repeated, she resolved not to give in to this blatant bribery, but every time, she failed herself, threw up, forced herself to do a hundred crunches, and got her good night's sleep to prepare for the next day's practice.

* * * * *

She called it The Freeze because it made her whole body feel cold and numb, 'it' being two extra strength acetaminophen taken with two ibuprofen.

She had originally started the regimen to relieve her aching muscles, but quickly came to abuse the medication in her pursuit of the relaxing high it offered. Four over-the-counter pills and a twenty-minute wait were all it took to render her dreamy and fulfilled and cold all over--not the harsh, unforgiving cold of the skating rink breaching her skin from the outside like an army on siege, but a tingling, therapeutic cold that radiated from her bones outward. She was the only person she knew who could mess herself up with so little medication. It probably helped that the combined effects of overexertion and bulimia had gotten her weight down to about eighty pounds.

The first time her father caught her popping painkillers, he looked angry enough to hit her, but he didn't raise a hand. "I'm not mad, Lucille," he said, "just disappointed."

She barely heard the words. Her arms tingled.

He disappeared for a moment, then came back holding her skates. "Get in the truck."

"Where are we going?"

"Get. In. The. Goddamn. Truck."

She ambled into the passenger's seat, giggling all the while. "Put the skates on," he told her on the way. She conceded.

Okay. Whatever.

He parked the car alongside a frozen lake and yanked her out of the car by the wrist. "Ow!" she complained.

"Getting your feeling back, are you?" He narrowed his eyes and sneered. "I'm not going to stand by and watch you ruin yourself like this. You take drugs, you'll work your little ass off to sweat them out of your system. Got it?"

"I'm not skating on that."

"You'll do it because I tell you to do it, or you can say goodbye to skating forever!"

"Fine then! I'll quit!"

He roared in anger and pushed her onto the lake's surface.

The second she made contact, the thin ice cracked under her weight. Clinging to the shards of ice jutting into the hole, she floundered out sobbing. "I hate you! You bastard! Die, die, die, die, die!"

* * * * *

Influenza kept Luce out of the rink for the following week. Once she was well enough to walk, her father decided she was well enough to skate. Her first day back, one of the other skaters, Yulia, asked her, "Where were you?"

"I fell into the lake and got sick."

"Ouch. How'd that happen?"

"My father pushed me."

"Why?"

"Because I was doing drugs."

"What kind of drugs?"

"Tylenol and ibuprofen." She felt a strange sense of pride at confiding in Yulia, her friend's shocked expression making her feel like a real rebel. Like she actually had some autonomy in her life. Yeah, my dad's an asshole. Yeah, I do drugs. Hey, world--you don't like it, too bad.

"Oh my gosh, Lucille. No. Don't do that!" said Yulia. "That's like, a druggie's number one rule: no acetaminophen. That stuff'll mess up your liver so bad. You'll die a slow and painful death that way.

"Oh."

That night, between dinner and puking, Luce thanked her father for saving her life in a small voice. So small, in fact, she was sure he hadn't heard it.

* * * * *

"You want to get high? You get your pills from a doctor, not over the counter."

After practice, Yulia had invited Luce over to her house, which was empty while her parents were out on a date. She took a bottle of Xanax from the pantry and handed Luce a pill.

"Where did you get this?"

"It's my mother's. She gets these weird panic attacks, so her doctor prescribes her this."

Luce dry-swallowed the Xanax. "Thanks."

"No problem. Anything to keep you off the Tylenol. You know, there was a woman in my neighborhood who actually tried to commit suicide with Tylenol, but then she changed her mind. She changed her freaking mind!" said Yulia, popping a pill herself. "She went to the ER, and they said she'd already fucked up her liver so bad, the only way they could save her was if she got a liver transplant. She died while she was on the waiting list. No Tylenol."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Y'know, when I kill myself, it'll be quick. I won't give myself time to change my mind," Yulia mused.

"You mean 'if'?"

"No, I mean when. This stupid freaking sport will be the death of me, I just know it. All the demands, the expectations, and those stupid stuck-up bitches at the rink. Don't tell me it doesn't make you miserable."

"I guess I'm pretty miserable, yeah," Luce agreed. "But I'm not going to kill myself."

"That's what you think."

* * * * *

"Where were you?"

Luce's father was standing in the doorway when she got home. She'd missed dinner.

"At Yulia's house."

"So that's how you repay me for all the time and money I've put into your skating? By fraternizing with the enemy?"

"She's not my enemy, Dad."

"You think she'll still be so friendly when you're competing against her?"

"So just because I'm a competitive athlete, I'm not allowed to have friends?"

"That's exactly what it means, Lucille. It's lonely at the top."

"You're sick."

"You are banned from Yulia's house from now on. Do you understand me?"

"Die."

She waited until he was asleep, then threw down three acetaminophen and three ibuprofen, because, fuck it, when Yulia kills herself, I'll just take her liver.

* * * * *

Luce was fourteen the first time she broke a bone.

She didn't scream or even flinch when she saw her leg splayed out in front of her, the bone jutting out from mangled flesh and bloody tights. If she cried, it was in relief.

Now, finally, she had an excuse to take a break.

Her coach helped her off the ice, eased her skates off in the bleachers, and drive her to the hospital.

She didn't see her father until after her surgery. The news of her injury devastated him. Throughout her recovery, he treated her like a princess: breakfast in bed, tender sponge baths at noon, and as much codeine as she claimed she needed.

She knew it wasn't love, but at least it looked and felt and smelled like love. More and more, she grew used to the idea that the closest thing she would ever obtain to her father's love--to anyone's love--was sympathy with the precursor of injury.

She watched the Olympics from the hospital. Yulia had made the team. She brought home a bronze medal. Luce's father was embittered. Luce was happy for Yulia.

As soon as her leg had healed, her father threw her back onto the ice, but she didn't care about twirls and jumps anymore. She didn't care about her technique or her beauty or her weight. All she cared about was her next hit of codeine.

She no longer wished death upon her father, even when he became especially demanding. If he died, it wouldn't make her feel any better. Only hurting him could console her, and only her own pain could hurt him. He was a failure. At her age, he'd been skipping speed skating practice and smoking pot. He had nothing.

Nothing except her.

Every time he called her worthless or careless from then on, she would conspire to stab herself or throw herself off the roof or gouge out her eyes or yank out all her nails and teeth with pliers.

Anything to destroy herself, her career, and the only thing in his life worth living for.

But inevitably, she would abandon those plots in favor of stealing money from her father's wallet, paying a back-alley dealer for smuggled opiates, and drowning her senses.

* * * * *

"Are you sure this is what you want, Luce?"

"Absolutely. Swing."

The Olympics loomed ahead, and an eighteen-year-old Luce was sitting in a shed with her leg propped up on a stool. Yulia's boyfriend, Vanya Sadykov, stood over her with a sledgehammer. "You're really going to make me do this? Your team is depending on you."

"Do you want your Yulia to win this time or not? Swing!"

Seeing her father swell with pride at the news she was going to the Olympics had, after all the years of built-up stress snapped something inside her. "I love you, Lucille," he'd told her for the first time she could remember, and it filled her with rage.

Yes, he loved her, but he'd destroyed her, and she was going to in turn destroy his dream. She was through with the twisted Stockholm syndrome that had bound her to his cruelty all her life. She was through accepting his affection-bribes and bending to his will. She was Luce Lutrova, autonomous, and nobody's to be proud of.

She held her breath and gripped the edges of the chair. Vanya swung.

When the sledgehammer hit, it shattered Luce's knee, necessitating another surgery. The promise of codeine enticed her, and for days in the hospital, she was at perfect, drug-induced peace. Then, halfway through her recovery, a secondary infection occurred, and doctors were forced to amputate her leg before the infection spread and killed her.

After recovery and months of physical therapy to help her get used to her prosthesis, Luce was reluctantly sent home. Her father received her warmly.

"The doctors said the trauma you suffered couldn't have resulted from an accident. They said someone attacked you," he said. "Who did this to you, my angel? Whoever it was, they'll pay!"

Not wanting to incriminate Vanya for answering her plea, she said, "I did."

He flew into a rage and beat her until her mouth was bloody.

* * * * *

Luce staged a convincing suicide, but after a few weeks on the streets, she began to wonder if she'd have been better off committing a real suicide. Sure, she had her freedom. She filled her days with all the small vices she'd missed out on while the rink owned her life. She took up smoking and dyed her brown hair electric blue in rebellion against forces that no longer oppressed her. She snuck into live music bars and flashed her chest to the boys in the bands.

But although she was on her own, she was far from free. She couldn't eat more than a few bites of anything without her stomach rebelling and was completely dependent on her ever-dwindling supply of painkillers.

With nowhere to go and no means of self-support, she started planning her escape to X, the nearest foreign country she'd have a chance in, figuring the socialist handouts would help her start over.

* * * * *

Luce threw off the covers and rolled out of bed in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. A flashlight, still warm, sat on her nightstand, next to one of the pleasure manuals she'd borrowed from Marion. Her breathing was quick and shallow and her nightgown cling to her skin by a thin layer of sweat. The fingers of her right hand were slick with moistness.

Marion was flossing her teeth in the mirror. She took one look at Luce and smirked. "Still thinking about that dictator?"

Luce went red. "How'd you--"

"Please. You cried out his name so loud me and my customer heard through the wall."

"I-I did?"

"You're playing a dangerous game, wanting him," said Marion. "He's half a decent person when he's sober, but drunk, he'll murder you."

"It's not like I've got anything to lose by that." Luce turned on the tap and washed her hands. "I'm already dead."

Marion fixed her with a penetrating stare. "You are, aren't you?"

Luce's mind chose that moment to realize she was fresh out of codeine.



Chapter Four



For once, Marion knocked before barging into Luce's apartment. "It's open," Luce called through the wall. Marion threw open the door and stood in the threshold, her metal foot propped against the doorframe. She wore a tight black dress with sequined straps and a bright, vibrant face of makeup, her fiery hair sprayed stiff into elaborate curls. In one hand she held a thick wad of cash. "C'mon, Lucie-Lu. We're going bar-hopping."

Luce shoved her hands into her pockets to hide their tremors. "Are you sure? I wouldn't want to cost you too much."

"Sure!" Marion linked elbows with Luce and dragged her out the door. "Nice thing about prostituting is, government won't know if ya forget to report some finances, so I got enough to go around. 'Sides, I doubt you can drink much anyway, tiny thing as you are."

"Gee. Thanks, Marion. I think."

Marion was the only occupant of the apartment complex who could afford her own car and the gas to run it. As the sun went down, Luce accompanied Marion into the fume-spewing junker and they started at a languid crawl toward the capital.

It was pitch black outside by the time they reached their destination. Marion parked along the curbside of a street lined with neon-clad establishments, none of them especially crowded, but all of them booming with music. She led Luce into a bar resonating with a rough, heavy bass beat--her music--and ordered "three shots of vodka, no nonsense."

Luce ordered a single shot for herself and claimed the stool at the far end of the bar. She drank alone, rocking gently to the bass beat and watching Marion flirt and dance with men. A pang of envy coursed through her at how Marion was getting all the attention, but she supposed it was only to be expected that nobody looked her way twice. Even with her prosthesis, Marion was lively, rosy, glowing like a candle. Beautiful.

Luce, on the other hand, wasn't pretty, a fact she was starting to come to terms with. She was a skeleton, with her emaciated face and grotesquely protruding bones. A zombie and a slave to painkillers.

The stool vibrated as she shivered.

As one song ended ant the next began, Marion appeared out of nowhere and yanked Luce off her barstool, knocking her drink out of her hand. The glass shattered as it hit the floor. "Hey, what gives?" snapped Luce.

"We gotta go."

"Why?"

Marion gestured toward the door and the stout, well-dressed man who had just come through it. "That's why."

"Who's that?"

"That," said Marion, "is Bennet Ramsey, emperor of Y. He's in town to negotiate with Luto, and I don't like Luto, but honestly, I feel sorry for him for having to sit in a room with Ramsey. That man is a complete monster."

"Aren't most?"

"You don't understand. Bennet Ramsey redefines cruelty," Marion went on. "One of my whore friends, Alison, swears that just the other day, he impaled his own fiancé with a pike from her anus right through to her mouth for giving him lip, then mounted her in his front lawn. According to Alison, the girl yet lives."

Luce shuddered. She didn't know how much she could trust the secondhand tales of prostitutes, but even when she factored in the possibility of exaggeration, Ramsey sounded vile. Not someone she wanted to drink in the same bar with. "You're right," she said, "let's leave."

She followed Marion out of the bar and into the street. That's when the tremors started again. She groaned as her body begged for opiates. "Do you mind if I sit down for a second?"

"Drink getting to you already? Arright, go 'head."

Luce turned down an alley and sat with her back against the wall, grimacing and covering her eyes with one hand, the other clenched in a tight fist. She was sitting in darkness for a minute or two before she felt Marion's hand on her thigh, just above where her leg ended and her prosthetic started underneath her jeans. "Lemme see your eyes, Luce Lutrova." Luce uncovered her eyes and met Marion's. "They look so sad."

Marion brushed a strand of hair out of Luce's face, and the next thing she knew, their lips were touching, Marion on top of Luce with her hands inside her shirt. Luce wrapped her arms around Marion's waist and pushed her lips apart with a soft prod of her tongue. Mindful of the techniques she'd learned from Marion's sex books, she passionately explored the prostitute's mouth, smearing both their faces with Marion's lipstick in a silent, go on then, put me to the test.

Marion pulled away giggling. "You're really drunk," said Luce.

"I know." Marion nipped softly at Luce's lower lip. "Hey, you're pretty good. The books taught you well how to put out. They tell you how to receive pleasure, though?" She pulled Luce's shirt up over her head and tossed it aside. The bra was the next thing to go. "My God." She ran her fingers along each hill and valley of Luce's ribcage. Luce watched her expression turn from mischievous to genuinely concerned. "What'd you do to yourself?"

Her kisses moved down Luce's neck and to her chest. She took a stiff, aching nipple into her mouth and flicked it back and forth with her tongue. Luce whimpered and cupped the back of the other woman's head, tousling her hair as she was licked and sucked. Her head lolled back, and she wasn't sure if the shivers coursing through her body were from codeine withdrawals or blind animal arousal.

Marion moved lower still, rolling Luce's pants down around her ankles, the one organic and the other artificial. Before Luce knew what hit her, her legs were spread, Marion's tongue skillfully laving at the folds of her dripping sex. Luce's thighs contracted softly around Marion's head and she let slip a sharp cry as she came.

Marion pulled away smirking. "Good?"

"That was…oh…oh God…"

"Thought so."

Luce stood and pulled up her pants, fingers shaking. "How much is that going to cost me?"

"Free and gratis, sister comrade." Marion tossed Luce her shirt. She put it on with a sigh.

I've just been pity-fucked by a hooker. She didn't know how to feel about that.

"We still got a half hour until curfew," said Marion. "Want to see if we can make it to the Subsidy?"

"The what?"

"It's a bar. They have the best cocktails. Plus, the busboy's hot."

Luce shrugged. "Sure. Why not?" She still had tremors, and with any luck, more liquor would make them go away.

They hopped into Marion's car and took three right turns to the Subsidy. "Twenty-five minutes until curfew--that's five to drink and twenty to get close enough to home so that any patrolmen we run into will at least think we made our best effort to make the cutoff," said Marion. She led Luce into the dank, unimpressive bar and ordered them each a tall, red drink with four shots of whiskey. Halfway through her glass, Luce was giggling at absolutely nothing.

On the way across the bar to the exit, Luce collided head-on with another patron. She wobbled for a moment, and he held her shoulders to help her stay upright. "Hic!--Sorry." She chuckled nervously and looked up to find herself staring into the eyes of Matt Luto. Her heart jumped in her chest. "Hey."

He blinked. God, those blue eyes were like crystals. "Luce, right?"

"Yeah-huh, oh-my-gosh, you remembered!"

"It's a little hard to forget someone when you've saved her life."

"Luce." Marion appeared at her side and tugged on her arm, glaring warily at Matt. "We have to go. It's almost curfew."

"It's arright, I can stay out. I got an all-hours pass, see?" She dug the pass out of her handbag and flashed it to her neighbor.

"That's from weeks ago, Luce."

"Yeah, but the First Secretary'll change the date for me. Wontcha, Matto?" She cast him a pleading smile.

He took the pass, unpocketed a pen, made a change, and handed the corrected form back to her. "For future reference, nobody's allowed to call me 'Matto'."

"Right then! Great!" She wrapped both of her arms around one of his and leaned into him. "Can we step outside? I wanna talk to you about something."

* * * * *

Matt knew what was coming when he agreed to walk with Luce. It was obvious from the state of her what she wanted. Her wobbly, drunken condition, her disheveled clothing, the lipstick smearing her face and neck--she'd filled her night with sex and wasn't done. Part of him wanted to take advantage of the fact. World-famous, yet enigmatic, within his grasp, yet dead to the world, she made herself desirable by virtue of her many mysteries.

But in the end, another drive won out over his urge to have sex with her: an overpowering sense of responsibility for her welfare. He'd saved her life once, and the act had forged a bond between them. Now, as she waltzed into his life a second time, he felt as though it was his civic duty to keep protecting her, like he'd adopted her as a child or a pet or a cause.

"I've been thinking about you so much all this month," she said as they walked.

"All good things, I hope."

"Aw yeah. Marion thinks I should be afraid of you, but whatever. I don't really care if you kill me."

Matt cringed. "That's a disturbing thought. You can't really think that…but of course you don't. You don't know what you're saying. You're drunk."

"I know assactly what I'm saying!" snapped Luce. "An' I stand by my previous statement that I'm dead, so it doesn't matter if you or anyone else kills me."

"You're not dead." He put an arm around her waist and squeezed softly. "You're right here."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." She leaned into him with all her weight until he was pressed back-to-the-wall against the nearest building. "So, r'we doing this or not?"

"You're too drunk, Luce."

"I thought about you when I touched myself."

"What you need is some rest and a coffee."

"And I know you're a dictator and I'm just a peasant farm worker, but ya know what they say. Carpe…carpe…"

Her words were lost to a sudden convulsion. Then, her body went rigid, her hands balling up around fistfuls of his shirt, and she collapsed into his arms.

Because she was his beloved child-pet-cause to guard and protect, he took her home with him on the subway.

* * * * *

Matt set Luce up with a bed in the capital building's infirmary. Zyler, who since his liberation from servitude had completed a hasty medical degree and gone on to become head doctor at the capital, diagnosed her with severe opiate withdrawals. As he began her treatment, she had to be rushed to the bathroom twice to expel violently from both ends. At one point, her airways clogged with mucus, and Zyler had to administer breathing tubes, but much to Matt's relief, they came out before too long.

Matt stayed at her bedside throughout the night, but come morning, he was called to the conference hall to receive his guest, the emperor of Y, for negotiations. He left Luce under the care of Zyler and Cordera.

* * * * *

Luce awoke shivering in an unfamiliar room. She guessed she was in some sort of hospital--where else could she be if she felt this awful? But instead of cold and white, the walls in front of her were papered in a gaudy but welcoming flowered pattern. The end tables were of a rich wood, and the bed resembled more a bed than a gurney.

Sunlight streamed through the windows, harsh and abrasive to Luce's eyes. She pulled the covers over her head and groaned. "Oh, I'm sorry, is that too bright for you?" someone said. Then came the sound of curtains coming closed. She uncovered her head, blinked in the merciful semidarkness, and looked up at her caretaker, a notably pretty young blonde wearing a green dress and red stockings.

"Are you feeling better? You were out for a couple days."

"Who're you?" asked Luce.

"Apologies. Matt is away for negotiations. I'm Cordera, Command Undersecretary--which really just means I crack the whip at the capital and make sure people are working." She laughed dryly. "Sometimes my brother hands out fancy titles when he can't afford to give raises."

"Oh."

"He wanted to stay with you. I think he's fond of you." Cordera smiled. She set a glass of water on Luce's end table and peered at her. "Hey, you're Luce Lutrova, right? Why does everyone think you're dead?"

"My head really hurts, Cordera. Do you think you could get me some ibuprofen?"

"Sorry, Miss Lutrova. The surgeon says you can't have any drugs at this stage," said Cordera. "He'll be in shortly with a soup for you. Would you like me to call the Russians and tell them you're alive?"

"Please, no!" Luce started to sit upright, but her spinning head forced her to lie back down.

"Okay. I won't ask, then. You probably get tired of the questions. My brother is the same way. D'you want me to sit with you until the surgeon comes?"

Luce squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm fine, Cordera. Thank you."

She heard the door close, but opened one eye a crack to make sure Cordera was gone. Then, she painstakingly rolled out of bed, trembling on her feet.

"There's got to be something in here somewhere," she muttered to herself, opening each cabinet she could find. "A-ha! I knew it." At the back of one of the cabinets, she encountered a bottle of analgesic pills containing codeine and…

Acetaminophen.

"Fuck!" She groaned. "Ah well, just means more work…"

There was a sink in the corner of the room, thank God. She took a glass out of a cabinet and a spoon out of another, crushed a handful of pills, and mixed the powder with a cup of water. She had started going through the cabinets again, looking for a coffee filter or paper towels or anything else she could use to strain out the acetaminophen, when the door swung open behind her.

"Ahem."

She jumped and turned around.

In the doorway was a young man, about Cordera's age or a little older, with brown hair and kind eyes--disillusioned, but kind. She could tell he was a the surgeon Cordera had mentioned because he had the promised bowl of soup balanced on his lap as he sat watching her from his wheelchair.

She smiled sheepishly. "Good afternoon, Doctor…?"

"Ellis. Zyler Ellis," he introduced himself, wheeling over to her position. He handed her the soup and confiscated the remains of her attempted cold water extraction. "I imagine you're rather miserable without your drugs, but I can't allow you to give into your cravings. I'm afraid you'll have to sweat, vomit, and excrete your addiction out like everyone else."

She muttered a stream of profanities in Russian.

"What was that?"

"Thank you for the lovely soup, Dr. Ellis." She took a bite. It actually was quite lovely. "Do you know when Matt--er, Secretary Luto--will be back?"

"From negotiations with Bennet Ramsey? With that man, who knows?" said the doctor. "Ramsey will drag the proceedings on for as long as it takes to get some headway, and he's not above stooping to filibustering and petty threats. He and the Empire of Y have been trying to conquer X ever since the new socialist system was implemented. New state, weak adversary, you know the stereotype. I won't call our state exactly viable, but we have been able to hold our own thus far…who knows, though? Ramsey may yet win by sheer persistence." Ellis shook his head. "Politics is a game of bullshit, all of it. Lies and corruption and bullshit. Matt actually offered me a position in the government when he first came to power, but I point-blank refused."

"It's a necessary life-skill to know how to say 'no' to people," said Luce.

"Indeed. You'll be well enough to work again in a few days. In the meantime, eat. You'll feel better."

She did as she was told, but after only a few bites, her stomach became offended. Her throat burned with acid as she retched. She bent double and vomited all over the doctor's shoes. "Sorry," she rasped. Her throat was killing her.

"No worries. It happens more often than you might think."

* * * * *

Late in the afternoon, a knock came at the door of the infirmary. "Luce? Anyone? Can I come in?" Luce recognized Matt's voice.

"Come in," she called hoarsely. She was curled up in bed, shivering and sweating ice.

He opened the door a crack and crept inside. "How are you feeling?" He approached her with concern, but there was an edge to his voice.

"What happened with Ramsey?"

"It's nothing." He pulled up a chair and sat by her bedside. "Have you eaten?"

She shook her head. "Couldn't."

"Aww, Luce." Her soup lay unfinished on the end table. He picked up the bowl and stirred it. "Want me to heat this up for you?"

"No, it'll burn going down."

"Right then. Open." He held the spoon in front of her face. She reluctantly opened her mouth and gagged down the broth and vegetables. As she swallowed, he gently massaged her throat to help the soup go down. His fingers were cool and soothing.

"What happened at the negotiations?" she asked again. This time, he didn't hold back.

"Bennet Ramsey was dragging the discussion on forever, trying to get me to bend. Finally, I called off the talks, because clearly we were just wasting each others' time, so the little cuntface goes home and fucking firebombs my western border. Who does that?" The spoon shook in his grip. "The damages are going to cost way more than we have in the federal budget. A few more blows like that, and X is fucked for sure." He fed her another spoonful of soup. "Sorry if I'm putting too much of a damper on things."

"No, it's fine."

He fed her in silence for a half minute or so, then said, "I've been meaning to ask you, why'd you cross out your middle name on your ID?"

"It's not really a middle name, per se. It's my ochestva. My father's name, Milek, plus ovna. It's how we Russians roll."

"I see. Don't get along with your father well, do you?"

"On a scale of one to 'understatement'…"

He nodded in understanding. "I've been there." He slipped a hand underneath the blanket, and at first she thought he was going to try something--which she wouldn't have minded--but he only rubbed her stomach in slow, calming circles. "Feeling better?"

"Much."

"I'm glad. I've got some work to do, but I'll try and check up on you later."

He left her bedside and walked out of the room. Suddenly, she felt horrible.

It seemed all her life, she'd been either addicted to something or moving from one addiction to the next: first her father's approval, then codeine, and now, a communist dictator.

If this latest addiction doesn't kill me, I'll declare myself invincible.

* * * * *

By the end of the week, Luce was well enough to return to work, just as Dr. Zyler Ellis had predicted. While he was filling out the forms for her discharge, he asked, "What's going on between you and Secretary Luto?"

She shrugged and wiped her nose on her sleeve. The doctor handed her a tissue, which she took and promptly discarded. "I dunno. He's saved my life twice."

"Do you like him?"

"Maybe."

"Are you in love with him?"

"I haven't decided."

"Do you think it's possible to love anyone else if you can't love yourself?"

Growing irritated with his questions, she turned the discussion on him. "And what about you, huh? Do you know what love is? Have you ever been in love with anyone? Are you now?" she teased.

"My love life isn't something I generally discuss with my patients."

"Who is it? The pretty little Undersecretary, Cordera?"

His face reddened.

Luce gasped. "Cordera? Shit, man!" A smile spread across her face. "Do you think Secretary Luto will be mad if you fuck his sister?"

"I doubt that'll become an issue," said the doctor.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because what would she want with me? She's beautiful…"

"And you're crippled." A sharp pain hit her as she wondered if Matt would be nearly as kind to her if he found out she was a gimp. "I'm sorry for messing with you. I guess being confined to bed has made me a little stir-crazy."

"Don't worry about it. Here. Your prescription." He handed her a slip of paper with four words written on it in chicken-scratch doctor's handwriting: stay off the drugs.



Chapter Five



Marion practically beat down Luce's door the minute she returned home. "Where were you, Luce? I was so worried about you!"

"I was ill," said Luce.

"Well, the next time you think you're gonna be ill, don't disappear with a crazy dictator beforehand. Jesus, I was afraid he'd murdered you."

"He wouldn't. He's not a bad guy." Luce had come to that conclusion, among others, on the subway ride home. Her attraction to Matt Luto, she decided, didn't result from any death wish she had, but rather her ability to see good in him, buried somewhere deep. "He took me to the capital infirmary and had me nursed back to health. That's twice now he's saved my life. I really think you're overreacting. I think he only inflicts injury on girls who look like his mom," she said, deliberating a lighthearted tone.

"Thanks. Undermine my concern."

"Right, because that's what concerned friends do is get each other outrageously drunk and pity-fuck each other in alleys."

"Who said there was pity involved?" protested Marion. "Sometimes friends do things for each other is all. Consider it compensation for all the cigarettes." On her own cue, she took a cigarette from Luce's dresser and lit up before changing the subject. "Hey, do you follow sports?"

"Don't have a telly. Can't afford cable."

"Oh. Of course, sorry. Anyway, I don't know if you heard by word of mouth, but the Olympics just started and one of the Russian skaters, Yulia Belanov, hanged herself in a locker room," said Marion. Smoke spilled out her mouth and swirled around her face. "When I think about how that coulda been you, it gets me all dark and shuddery inside. You really are the best friend I've ever had."

Luce's stomach clenched. "I knew Yulia. We were friends, I guess. I mean, she invited me over once and shared her mom's Xanax with me."

"Oh, big surprise about her killing herself, then," Marion said sarcastically. "Isn't it weird how life works sometimes? One day, you're a perfectly happy child, popping Xanax and living the life, and the next, you're hanging from a shower bar."

Luce resolved at that point never to mention her codeine problem to Marion. Though she'd gotten over her withdrawals, she still had cravings, and the only things keeping her from using again were Zyler's orders and the fact that she didn't know where to start looking for drugs in this strange new country--mostly the latter.

"Yulia told me she was going to do it, too. She always said she would kill herself quickly." Luce sighed. "Maybe she faked it. Maybe she's run off to America."

"They found her body, Luce. She's done. Most people are when the media reports their suicide. Not everyone can be like you."

Not everyone can be like you. Like I'm supposed to be some strong invincible something, thought Luce bitterly.

But Marion was right. For all the giving up and running away Luce had done in the last few months, she'd made it further than most people would have in her shoes.

She'd made it out alive.

* * * * *

Over the next few weeks, Luce's life dissolved into monotony. It was getting cooler outside, so working long hours in the turmeric fields grew gradually more pleasant.

Occasionally, when Marion was without customers for a night, she would slink into Luce's apartment, picking the locks if she had to, and climb into bed with her. Their little games of kiss-and-touch were as much about friendship as gratification, but there was no romance involved, no passion. How could there be when Luce was emotionally dead and Marion was selling her soul bit by bit every day?

Marion was heading out when Luce's first paycheck slid through the mail slit in the door and hit the floor. Luce snatched it up in anticipation.

"Don't be disappointed when that turns out not to be enough to buy breakfast," said Marion on her way out. "This economy sucks."

The door swung shut, and Luce was alone.

* * * * *

The memo arrived at noon that an attempted air-bombing by the Empire of Y had been intercepted by the X artillery. The war room at the capital buzzed with conversation in tones ranging from triumphant to relieved.

"What did I tell you," said Matt, giving the conference table a celebratory smack. "Didn't I say they'd go for the western provinces?"

"Well, damn," said Cordera, who sat in the swiveling chair next to where he stood. She pulled out her wallet, withdrew a bill, and handed it to him--she had bet on an attack from the east. "I must say, brother, you're quite the tactician. Then again, I bet I'd be just as good if I spent three hours in the library with Sun Tzu's The Art of War."

"Really, you'd need three hours? I learned that thing in one and a half." He smirked. "Now then, fancy a drink, complements of yourself?"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, you're too generous."

His taking her to the Subsidy was just as much for his own sake as for her enjoyment. He knew what alcohol did to him, and though he refused to reform, he acknowledged that he would be a lot better off with Cordera around to keep him from doing anything stupid if he got too drunk, which he planned to do.

He was halfway through his first draft when it started. Between staring into space and watching Cordera turn down Frankie's sexual advances, he caught a glimpse of fingers in his periphery. White, slender fingers with lacquered nails like red apples. The kind of fingers he wanted to interlace with his own.

Carlot.

He reached for her hand, but she eluded him and even though he knew she was dead, gone, and incorporeal, a mere booze dream, her touch burned as she brushed his cheek. He turned around and nearly fell off his barstool, but she wasn't there.

Not that he expected her to be magically resurrected.

This is getting ridiculous. Carlot had been dead for years. He had to stop letting her follow him around as a constant reminder of his failure to save her life. He needed a distraction.

Or perhaps a reminded of his successes in the life-saving department.

"Cordera." Though he spoke her name quietly, she heard him from across the room and turned to acknowledge him.

"Yes, brother?"

"Are our housing records up to date?"

"I've made sure of it."

"How difficult would it be to look up the address and phone number of a specific resident?"

"With the new computer system it would be momentary," said Cordera. "Why? Did you just get an epiphany about the identity of some terrorist?"

"No, I'd just like to check up on our dear comrade Luce Lutrova."

* * * * *

Matt returned to the capital and looked through the housing records, but there was no Luce Lutrova listed anywhere. "Of course," he'd muttered. If she'd run away from Russia faking her own suicide, she didn't want to be found, and if she registered in X under her real name, she'd get dragged back for sure. She must have given the housing commission an alias.

He looked up Marion Oubliette, hoping he could discern Luce's location by proxy. He knew she and Luce were friends, but also knew she wouldn't speak to him over the phone, so rather than try to enlist her willing assistance, he used his power to encroach on her privacy and hacked her email.

He found no direct correspondence between Marion and Luce Lutrova--he suspected Luce didn't have a computer--but after a thorough search, he managed to find a clue in her sent box.

Going to be running a little late. With my BFFL Luce. If you need to talk, call the building and have them connect you to 4A.

4A. He had her. The whole process had taken him about an hour. On the plus side, he was now much more sober and in a better mindset to make phone calls.

On the minus side, he could still feel Carlot lingering in the shadows.

* * * * *

Luce was about to open her paycheck when her phone rang in unison with the curfew siren. In all her weeks in X, this was the first phone call she'd received. The novelty of it--the solitude, the secrecy, the backwardness of her new life--brought a smile to her lips as she picked up.

"Is this the residence of Jody Cadence?" asked the caller. Luce figured it had to be someone from work, as that was where she used that alias most.

"Speaking."

"I'm just messing with you, Luce. It's me, Matt."

Her cheeks grew hot. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Are you doing anything later tonight?"

She looked from side to side. "No, it's past curfew."

"Can I come over?"

"Be my guest," she blurted. Since she'd met him, she'd been unable to put him out of her mind, and the thought of him actively trying to see her in a scenario that didn't involve her life being in danger made her pleasantly dizzy. "I'm assuming you know where I live?"

"Forty-five minutes, comrade."

He hung up. The knock at her door came after thirty.

Lightheaded and all smiles as if on the way up a codeine high, she wrenched open the door to admit him. She didn't know why he'd invited himself over, but wasted no time in letting him know why she'd accepted his invitation. The moment the door closed behind him, she rose up on tiptoe, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him deeply. A soft moan escaped her mouth into his as he placed his hands firmly on her waist, their warmth radiating through her.

He pulled away gasping. "You're a little crazy, has anyone told you that yet?"

"Not crazy," said Luce. "Just tired of never getting what I want out of life." She captured his mouth once more before asking, "So why'd you want to come over?"

"Just wanted to hang out."

"Well then. We're hanging." For a second, her mind drifted to the different meanings of hang. She thought of Yulia Belanov hanging by the neck from a shower bar in a locker room, but the image fled her mind as Matt's lips met hers again.

She held him even closer and pressed herself flush against him, moaning with desire as his growing erection prodded her stomach. Her insides felt vacant, as if all her viscera had dropped out and only his presence could fill the empty space.

He pushed her backward onto the living room sofa and she hit the understuffed cushions with a small grunt. As he climbed on top of her, she brought one hand down to cup his crotch and with the other felt her way up his waist, his chest, the hard planes of his body…she slipped her hand up the back of his shirt and he tensed above her as she touched bare flesh…she liked the feel of him rigid like this, the sound of his breath catching…she ran her fingers along a roadmap of crisscrossing scars she guessed had come from whips.

"You probably get tired of girls like me asking questions," she said.

"But you're going to ask anyway, aren't you?"

"No. Why should I? I already know how cruel the world is."

She heard zippers. Then he was rolling her pants off her legs. Prodding the junction between her leg and prosthetic with curiosity and fascination in his touch. "World is cruel," he echoed her words.

"You better believe it."

He rubbed her through her damp panties before removing the layer of fabric and exposing her to the coolness of open air. Her breath came out in short gasps as he pushed the head of his shaft into her wanting core.

But beneath the waves of pleasure surging through her body, the question begged for answer: What would a dictator want with a poor runaway like me?

Her fingers dug into her back as she came, able for a moment to forget the questions.

* * * * *

They lay spooning on the sofa for a long, silent stretch of time, he resting his chin on her shoulder, she gazing up at the ceiling. "What are you thinking about?" he asked at last.

She giggled softly and gave him the first two thoughts on her mind: "How hot you are and how much I hate men."

"How's that?"

"I guess it's because of how damn dictatorial my father was with me. No offense. I know it's a little twisted of me, but I tend to think of men as pretty good-for-nothing until they've been mauled or mutilated or destroyed a little first."

Silence again.

"What're you thinking about?" she asked him back.

"Just this girl."

"You're thinking about another girl?"

"It's not like that. I mean, she's dead."

"Oh."

"Just thinking about how she saved my life. If she'd never introduced me to socialism, I'd have doubtless let myself be destroyed by the old empire…or worse, killed myself."

"Oh," she said again. "Did she die for you?"

"She died because I couldn't save her."

Luce bit her lip. "Look, if you're only sticking around out of some guilt-driven savior complex you've developed, then don't. I won't hold it against you. I can take care of myself."

"It's not that, Luce, really," said Matt. "I like you. For you, not because you're someone to save to make up for my failures."

"Why? What's there to like?" she asked. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm kind of dead."

"You seem pretty alive to me."

"I'm no fun."

"Is that what you think?" He pulled her off the couch.

"Hey!"

"Get dressed. I want to show you something."

"Where are we going?"

He picked his pants off the floor and put them on. "To have some fun."

* * * * *

The military base was quiet in the dead of night, empty as a ghost town. Every step Luce took across the concrete of the warehouse floor echoed across the walls. "How much driving experience have you got?" asked Matt as he led Luce up to the side of an armored military jeep.

"Not much. Ice skating always kept me too busy for driver's ed. Why?"

"Why do you think?" He unlocked the doors and tossed her the key.

"Oh no. I'm not driving that." Contrary to her words, she approached the vehicle and put one hand on the metal.

Matt grinned. "See, you're not afraid." It perplexed him how she could fail to grasp why he liked her. Her lack of fear in the face of death made her a rare niche-marked commodity where women were concerned.

Luce popped open the front door and climbed into the driver's seat, exploring the controls before turning on the ignition.

No fun my ass, thought Matt. He could have his pick of any whore in the country, but he'd be hard-pressed to find one who would do this.

He took the passenger's seat and watched Luce in awe as she took the jeep out of the store-room and onto the open road. She didn't bother with the seat belt, he noted. "Having fun yet?" he asked, nudging her.

"Aah! Don't touch me while I'm driving!" she said with a shudder. "I'm not that good at this yet." She drove with the confidence of someone more experienced than she was, even if she lacked the technique.

He saw it before she did: a hulking moose standing in the middle of the road. "Oh god." He braced himself.

"Oh god!" she screamed a second later. She jerked the wheel, sending the car into a tailspin. It came to a screeching halt half in the shoulder and half in the median, the force of the spin tossing her from her seat and onto him. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. He felt her trembling against him.

She laughed hysterically.

* * * * *

Morning was approaching by the time Matt dropped Luce off at her apartment. "Sorry about the jeep," she said.

"It's no problem. So how was that for a first date?"

Her lips spread into an involuntary grin. "First date? Wow. I'd never pictured myself a dictator's girlfriend when I grew up," she said, though her satirical remark concealed something deeper.

"Only if you'd like to be."

She fiddled with her keys at the door. "As a dictator, shouldn't you be more…well, domineering?"

"What was that thing you said before about guys getting destroyed?" he said. "See, the thing about that is after a while, you learn by example that being a tyrant doesn't get you anything except killed by the resistance."

"See, what did I tell you? Beat a guy down and suddenly he's good for something. You just wait, a few years from now you'll be disproving that old axiom about absolute power corrupting absolutely." She kissed him on the lips before opening her door. "G'night."

"Night, Luce."

Alone again.

In the darkness of her apartment at four in the morning, she was suddenly filled with a strange love for her new country. Nothing made sense here, but that was just how she liked it. The sense she'd grown up in was painful. This…this was like Wonderland.

Or at least, that's how it seemed until she opened her paycheck.

"Damn," she muttered as she stared at the pitiful sum. Disillusionment rolled in as quickly as the hope had seconds before.

Marion was right. The economy did suck.

* * * * *

That Cordera Luto was her brother's loyalist there was no doubt. She would follow Mathias Luto the man to his grave…but she wasn't sure she trusted Mathias Luto the economist.

The imports ban imposed in X was meant to protect domestic industry, but after years of sneaking off to Russia to do her groceries, paying less for bus fare and food than she would have for just the food in X even after her government discount, Cordera could clearly see that the ban did nothing but drive prices unnecessarily high and smack the consumer in the face.

It was dark when the bus dropped her off at the first stop past the Russian border. After glancing at her watch, she started off toward her usual supermarket at a brisk walk. As an agent of the state, she wasn't subject for being out past curfew, but she didn't want to leave her brother alone for too long. Who knew what sort of trouble he'd get himself into then?

She had just turned onto a narrow, empty sidewalk when the sound of heavy footsteps from behind startled her. At first she dismissed it, convincing herself the noise was from her own steps, but as the footfalls drew closer and grew louder, it became obvious that the squelch-squelch-squelch of muddy shoes on pavement was out of time with the clink of her own bootheels.

She stopped in place and glanced over her shoulder. Two grizzled, thickset men were standing behind her, with arms crossed and leering smirks on their faces. She turned around to run, only to be stopped in her tracks by two more men. "Uuh…" Her hands balled into fists she suspected wouldn't help her.

"Well, looky here," said one of her ambushers. "Ain't she a pretty one? Just look at her pretty little face." He cupped her chin in one hand.

"Let go of me!" She pushed him off and stumbled backward, right into the arms of one of his accomplices.

"Careful, honeybunch. You might hurt yourself." He held both her wrists, and her struggles were futile against his iron grip.

"Please," she said, uselessly tugging against the restraints that were his fingers. "Let me go. Take anything you want, just please…"

"Oh, we don't want your money, sugarpuss," said one of the man. Cordera's thrashing grew more fierce, but still, she could not free herself.

"You don't want to do this. I'm Command Undersecretary of the Republic of X. If you lay a hand on me, my brother, the First Secretary, will hear about this!"

The men erupted into a chorus of laughter. "Yeah, assuming you make it back! Assuming anybody finds you once we're done with you!"

They dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the back of the nearest alleyway and pinned her against the grimy brick wall. She knew what was coming and she knew it was inevitable, but still, she fought, until someone dealt her a swift punch to the gut. She groaned in pain and coughed up blood.

Blood?

The front of her shirt felt hot and wet. When she looked down, she realized that blow to her stomach hadn't been a punch, but a knife.

"There, that oughta shut her up." The leader of the band held her arms to the wall and forced his lips onto hers, invading her mouth with his slimy tongue. Indignant anger bubbled up in her chest. She bit down.

"Fuck!" the man shouted, pulling away. "She bit me! The li--uhl bith bit me!"

She smirked at her small victory, but her triumph was short-lived. Another in the gang took it upon himself to silence her with a knockdown blow to the face. The knife was still in his hand.

At the new surge of pain, her tears flowed freely. As she lost more and more blood, she slipped out of consciousness, and her last thought before all went black was at least she wouldn't be awake to witness it when her attackers had their filthy way with her.



Chapter Six



Cordera awoke to the feel of a warm bed and the sound of a heart-rate monitor. Beep…beep…beep…Her limbs and eyelids felt unbearably heavy. She could only open them a crack before her hazy mind protested the light. Reassured by the monitor that she wasn't dead, she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

When she next awoke, she was greeted by voices. First, Zyler: "Where are you? I've called you twice already."

Then, her brother, faint and muffled, through a phone: "I'm with Luce. What's up, Zyler?"

"It's your sister. She was found in an alley in Russia. Someone's slashed her pretty bad and ra--and left her for dead. She's in the infirmary now, hanging on by a thread. She needs you here, Matt."

"Oh my…can I speak to her?"

"She's asleep. Just come over. Bring your girlfriend if you want, but please, just--"

"I'm on my way."

Matt was coming. She smiled and went back to sleep.

When consciousness next came to her, a warm hand was holding hers. She opened her eyes. They weren't so heavy anymore. White gauze above and below her eyelids limited her field of vision, but she was still able to recognize Matt's face.

"Morning, brother," she said, grinning up at him.

With his free hand, he stroked her bandaged head. "It's three in the afternoon, Cordera," he said. "I brought Luce earlier, but she had to go to work. You've been out for a long time."

"It was the codeine." Zyler's voice. "We had to do quite a bit of surgery…lots of reconstruction."

"How does she look?"

"She's still…well, you can imagine. We're doctors, not gods, and to expect us to do a perfect job on her--"

"You know what? Forget I asked," Matt interjected. "You saved her life. That's worth more than anything. Besides, I'll always think she's beautiful." He squeezed her hand. "My precious little sister."

Her breath caught in her throat.

Since she'd woken up in the infirmary, memories of how she'd gotten there had come in flashes. At first, she didn't know what was going on, but now, she had enough pieces to put together the basic gist of what had transpired. She remembered, vaguely, being stabbed in the face, and imagined the scarring would be hideous when the bandages came off. A crushing weight of depression settled on top of her chest.

Since childhood, she'd harbored a secret love for Zyler. She'd intended to tell him at some point--she always put it off, but resolved to get around to it eventually--but could he love her back now that her beauty was wrecked? Matt could, of course Matt could, but he was her brother and he'd love her no matter what.

Zyler wasn't Matt, and she couldn't expect the same from him as she did from her brother when she wanted him for a lover.

She blacked out with Matt holding her hand.

A few hours later, the voices were back.

Matt: "I should have been there for her. I could have protected her."

Zyler: "Evidence at the scene suggested she was greatly outnumbered. There's nothing you could have done. More than likely, if you were with her, you'd have taken it up the ass yourself and been murdered. You've got to let go of this savior complex of yours. Carlot Nash's life wasn't your responsibility, and neither is anyone else's. That's for us doctors to worry about."

She wasn't sure if she was dreaming or not. She went back to sleep, if she wasn't already sleeping.

It seemed like an eternity had passed before she was finally discharged. She wondered if it had been this bad for Luce.

She would still have to wear bandages for a few weeks after she left the infirmary, but she didn't expect her life to last that long. The minute she was discharged, she disappeared to a secluded hallway and pulled up the floorboards.

One of Queen Alba's guns was nestled in the straw under the boards, undisturbed through the years. Cordera pocketed the gun and replaced the boards.

* * * * *

Of course, there had to be four men around her at the Subsidy as she ordered her last drink. One, two, three soldiers, and Frankie made four. The four proverbial horsemen of her own personal apocalypse. Elbows on the bar, she buried her bandaged face in her palms and tried desperately to make herself enjoy the whiskey.

One of the soldiers sidled up to her and nudged her arm. "Why so blue there, little miss?" She swiveled on her stool and glared at him from the slits in the gauze for her eyes.

"Why do you think?" she snapped. "I'm a wreck, inside and out. Body, mind, and nerves. The man I love probably finds me disgusting. And--" She hesitated, but then decided there was no reason not to tell him. "And I'm going to kill myself."

"Aww. Don't do that," said Frankie. "You're talking crazy. It's all the booze, is all. You don't mean that."

"I do too."

"Your brother needs you."

"My brother is incorrigible. Not only does he refuse to accept help, but he thinks it's his duty to help everyone else around him. He just doesn't see it, though--how is anything supposed to survive if you smother it?" She didn't realize the truth in her words until she'd said them aloud. Throughout her childhood, her brother's sacrifice on her behalf had been a comfort to her. Only now could she see it was detrimental. Only at that very moment could she see why she was planning to kill herself.

It wasn't because she'd been slashed and disfigured in an alley. It wasn't because she hated what she'd become and thought Zyler would, too.

It was because her desires, goals, and incentives had been gradually destroyed by her brother's emotional subsidies. It was because she hated what she was even before the attack in Russia.

"Take me, for instance," she told the soldiers and Frankie. "If he hadn't spent our whole childhood defending me, I'd actually be able to defend myself and this wouldn't have happened to me. Take the economy! Look at it! He thinks he's helping it, but all he's doing is jacking the prices up and dragging wages down! Somebody's got to beat it into his head that he's got to try and stop rescuing everything!"

"Why not you?" asked one of the soldiers.

"Because I'm nothing," said Cordera. "I'm an underling, completely dependent on him, a victim of subsidy. I'm just another communist factory. I can try to appeal to my brother's reason, but in the end, I'm not good for anything without his handouts."

Frankie put his hand on top of hers and looked into her eyes. "It's never too late to start being good for something. It's never too late to go after what you want."

* * * * *

Matt was shaken from his slumber at five a.m. by the sound of screaming outside the capital building. His teeth gritted in irritation, he trudged to the window and opened the shutters a crack, squinting against the early morning light to see what the commotion was.

Outside on the sidewalk, a crowd was gathered, all holding signs except for the figure leading the mob, who carried a megaphone.

"What do we want?" shouted the leader.

"Free market!" bellowed the crowd.

"When do we want it?"

"Now!"

Matt looked for a long time before he recognized the leader. With her black cutoff shorts and a shirt fashioned from the American flag, she looked so different from every other time he'd seen her, but he could tell who she was by the bandages wrapped around her face. He dressed hastily and ran out onto the front lawn to confront her.

"Cordera, what the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted.

"Demanding my inalienable right to free trade and private property!" Cordera hollered back. "Now are you going to reform or not?"

"This is crazy, sister. Come inside."

"Not a chance!"

"What do we want? Free market! When do we want it? Now!" chanted the crowd.

He couldn't believe this. His own sister, whom he'd sacrificed so much to protect, whom he'd taken a bullet for, was conspiring to destroy his life's work. It hurt him on the deepest level of his being, and the hurt was quick to turn to anger.

"Cordera! I'm going to give you thirty seconds to come inside and get back to your post. If you refuse, you'll become an official enemy of the state."

"So be it then!" responded Cordera. "I'd take your enmity over your communism any day of the week! Goodbye, comrade!" She spat the word like it was a filthy insult. "And Godspeed!"

The crowd dissipated, still chanting. "What do we want? Free market! When do we want it? Now!" Cordera turned her back on Matt and disappeared over a hill.

* * * * *

Cordera took possession of an abandoned factory in a remote, rural district of X. By day, she used it to run her operations and rally her forces. By night, she slept there on piles of old blankets, letting the faint noise of talk segments from an antique radio carry her between states of consciousness. Technically, what she was doing was illegal, but X didn't have forces to waste on kicking her out. For weeks, she saw not hide nor hair of anyone from the state.

Then, a month or so into her revolution, in the middle of the night, the door creaked open. Cordera couldn't see the face of her visitor, but the outline of his body, sitting down with his hands on the wheels of his chair, told her everything she needed to know.

The gun she'd found in the floorboards at the capital lay cold and loaded on top of an old desk. She snatched it up, cocked it, and aimed it at the doctor. "Zyler, if you're here as an agent of my brother's authority, you've got thirty seconds to leave before I shoot you."

He put his hands up in surrender. "Please, Cordera. I'm not here for the government. I'm here for me."

She took her finger off the trigger, but did not lower the gun. "What, then? You here to ask me if you can join up?"

"Not exactly. I just want a word."

They stood vis-à-vis for a few more seconds of impasse. "This isn't the battlefield," said Zyler. "I'm unarmed. Put the gun down."

She wanted to believe he really was unarmed, but it wouldn't hurt to be too careful. She tucked the gun into her belt, walked over to him, and gave him a quick pat-down inspection. Satisfied that he wasn't concealing anything, she tossed the gun over her shoulder into her makeshift bed.

He laughed nervously. She raised an eyebrow. "What's funny?"

"Just when I thought my life couldn't get any worse, the girl I've loved since the empire days holds me at gunpoint."

She was glad she had bandages on to hide her shift in expression. "Y-you? You were in love with me?" she said. "Wh-why didn't you ever tell me, you fool?"

"You were always out of my reach. You're still out of my reach. You're out changing the world, and me…I'm lucky if I can avoid a blow from it."

It was her turn to laugh. "You think I'm any different than you? Jesus Christ, look at me. I'm a wreck. Life hits me just as hard--"

"But you hit back."

"And you think that takes some special intrinsic talent or something? Ha! It's not difficult, once you figure out what you really want out of life. All you have to do is go after it, grab on, and never let--"

Her words were cut off as he grabbed her hand and pulled her forward onto his lap. She grunted and shifted around until she was straddling him. He wrapped his arms around her and rested his head against her chest. She could feel the shudder in each of his deep breaths. "I love you so much, Cordera." His words were barely audible over the sound of wind hitting the aluminum factory walls and the dripping of water through the roof, but she hung onto each one. She ran her fingers through his hair in a comforting gesture. When he looked up at her, his eyes were moist, begging her forgiveness for all his previous lack of bravery.

"It's okay," she told him, holding him close. "We're both okay."

He bit his lip and nodded. "Can I see your face?"

The bandages were more for her own vanity's sake than medicinal necessity at this point. The stitches had healed, but gauze was handed out in ration lines while a mask would've come at a substantial price. "Sure. It's about as much of a mess as our economy though."

She expected his hands to be shaky and tentative as he undid the metal clamp securing her bandages in place, but he never trembled, never backed off. He unwound the bandages and let them fall off to the side, staring her straight in the eye. "You're still beautiful."

"You can't mean--"

He silenced her with a deep, ardent kiss. He worked her mouth for what could have been hours before letting up to give her air, only to lave over her cheek, her eyelids, her forehead, gently exploring the scars slashing across her face with his tender lips.

Her fingers dug into his sides. His upper body was hard and solid from working overtime to make up for his legs. A wave of desire and passion forced the breath from her lungs. She melted into his embrace and pretended they weren't on opposite sides of an escalating civil war.

* * * * *

"Good morning, my lovely Porphyria. Beautiful day, is it not?" Bennet Ramsey said to his lover as he passed her on his way into the Y palace after his morning stroll. She didn't answer him because she was many weeks dead. Rotting and putrid, displayed on the front lawn on a wooden pike with her hair wound around her neck in the noose that had killed her, she was not in any sense lovely. Nor was she named Porphyria--Bennet was merely referencing the poem by Robert Browning in which the speaker asphyxiated his paramour in a similar fashion. With three other women to entertain and a war to wage against X, Bennet couldn't be bothered to remember the girl's real name.

A dutiful servant took his coat as he entered the palace. "How goes the situation in the Republic?" he asked the man.

"Excellent, sire," said the servant. "The Republic of X seems to be entering a state of civil war."

Bennet deadpanned. "What?"

"I said, the Republic--"

"Yes, yes, I know; that was a rhetorical 'what'. Who's behind this rebellion?"

"None other than Cordera Luto, the First Secretary's own half-sister." The servant grinned. "Between fighting her and fighting his own conscience, he barely has enough time or energy to fight us!"

Bennet scowled. "I don't like this."

"Y-you don't?"

"No, this is a disaster. Miss Luto must be stopped."

"But what about the old adage about the enemy of your enemy?"

Bennet gave a wide, exaggerated smile. He pulled over a passing castle guard and said, "May I borrow your firearm to prove a point, officer?"

"Certainly, my liege." The guard unstrapped the rifle from his back and handed it over to Bennet. Bennet cocked the weapon and shot the servant in the stomach.

The servant sank to his knees, clutching at the wound. As he bled out, Bennet leaned over and whispered into his ear, "I don't like to share my enemies." He readied the rifle again and blew off the servant's head.

* * * * *

Cordera's pro-capitalist army set fire to the X housing commission in the dead of night. Cordera rode into headquarters on the shoulders of a cheering crowd, who didn't put her down until they'd all reached the kitchen of the building and she screamed to be lowered.

"Now then." She popped open the fridge and heaved a box of cheap white wine onto the island countertop while someone else fished a stack of plastic cups out of a cabinet. "A toast! To self-determination!"

"Self-determination," echoed the revolutionaries.

"Cordera!" The crowd parted to admit a young boy. Short of breath, with urgency in his steps, he ran to Cordera and thrust an envelope into her hands. "A man outside told me to give you this."

She turned the envelope over. It was unmarked. "Who was he."

"He didn't say."

"Did you ask?"

"I did. He said he couldn't say."

"That is odd indeed." She shook the parcel and sensed nothing unusual rattling around inside. Satisfied it didn't contain a bomb or anthrax, she opened the envelope and read the letter within.

Dear Ms. Luto,

Brava, brava, and brava. I commend you from the bottom of my heart for your staunch and adamant dedication to freedom. As an advocate of the free market myself, and loaded with resources at that, I wish to offer you aid--financial, military, whatever you may require. May we meet sometime? I'd offer to meet in your homeland of X, but at the risk of getting caught by the X secret police, I'm sure you'll agree this offer loses some of its sweetness. Shall we meet in the next bordering country, then? A trip to Y might serve us both as a beneficial distraction. Let's say, the corner of Fifth and St. Gabriel, this third of February at midnight? Let's make it a date. We'll discuss and negotiate the terms of your compensation in person.

Sincerely your anonymous but passionate sympathizer, now and forever, in this life and the next.

Cordera's flesh tingled with excitement. She had an ally! At this rate, she'd win the war in no time. It really did pay to be a go-getter, just as the capitalist doctrine preached.

Then another thought occurred to her. What if her anonymous ally was Zyler? Yes, that would make sense. He wouldn't put his life on the line with open rebellion--and she wouldn't dream of asking him to--but of course he'd sympathize with her cause. He loved her, did he not?

* * * * *

Cordera came to the designated place at the designated place at the designated time on the designated day. On the corner of Fifth and St. Gabriel stood a small, white schoolhouse with a fenced-in yard for recess. Even empty in the middle of the night, the building was enchanting, bringing about in Cordera a longing for the childhood she had missed. Until his death, her father had paid for her private lessons in reading and basic arithmetic, but she didn't imagine that could compare to going to a real school with other children. I bet it would be even more magical if the children were here.

The gate into the schoolyard swung open on its hinges. Cordera wandered past the fence and scanned the playground until her eyes fell upon the silhouette of the man who must have been her anonymous contact. He was short and thickset, leaning against a corkscrew slide with his arms crossed in front of him. His face was in shadow, but by the moonlight and city light behind him, Cordera could make out the outline of the side part in his hair.

Definitely not Zyler. Ah well. It was worth hoping.

She cleared her throat to get his attention. He angled his head to look at her. "Miss Luto! Glad you could make it."

"I wouldn't miss it." She smiled, not that he would have seen it behind her bandages. "Now, as for our negotiations, I'm not at this time able to compensate you for military aid, but once the takeover is complete and the economy is reorganized, I can give you substantial shares in the--"

She was cut off by a hand clapping over her mouth. She heard a gun cock. The man with his hand on her mouth seized her right arm while another took her left. The gunman walked out in front of her. Her supposed ally emerged from the shadows. She recognized his features at once from the newspapers.

Bennet Ramsey.

After the initial panicked stream of fuck fuck fuck fuck, her mind roiled with self-loathing. He'd tricked her. Why hadn't she seen it coming? Stupid, stupid!

No. He hadn't won yet. She wouldn't be beaten down again. Summoning her strength, she tore herself from the grips of the men holding her, launched herself at the gunman, and wrenched the gun from his hands. She closed her eyes and fired blindly again and again. When she looked, three men were dead. Only Ramsey remained standing.

He pulled a gun from his belt. She laughed and took aim at him. Fired.

Nothing.

She was out of ammunition. "Fuck!"

Ramsey fired into her stomach. Blood spurted up her throat. He closed the gap between them in a few short strides and kicked her to the ground, cackling. "You see now what happens to people who steal my battles." He stomped down on her stomach to hold her in place as he shot her again, four times in the chest, but never in the heart. She cried out at each blast of the gun. Ramsey's bootheel ground the first bullet into her guts. She writhed in agony. "Please, please, please, please."

She was begging for it by the time he pointed the gun between her eyes.

Bang!

* * * * *

In the weeks following Cordera's dissent, Zyler began acting increasingly distant and distracted at the capital. Matt suspected he was keeping some big Cordera-related secret. He dropped the question one morning over breakfast. “Dr. Ellis, have you been fucking my sister?”

“What? N-no. Why?”

“No reason.” Matt moved his eggs around on his plate. “You’ve been quiet lately. So has she.” Since the burning of the housing commission, there had been no revolutionary activity. “Have you seen her?”

“Yuh-no. Not lately.”

Matt narrowed his eyes. Scrutinized Zyler. Noticed a piece of paper in his hand at his side. “S’that?”

“Nothing.”

“Hand it over.”

Zyler conceded reluctantly. “I didn’t see Cordera. I swung by her headquarters and she wasn’t there. This was on the table.”

“You’ve known all this time where her headquarters was and you never told me?”

“I—“

“You’re fucking my sister.”

“Comrade!”

“You’re lucky we’ve been friends since diapers. Otherwise I’d have your license for this.” Matt unfolded the scrap of paper and read it over. Trouble settled in the pit of his stomach with each line. “You know what this means, don’t you, doctor?”

“She’s got herself an alliance.”

“No, you halfwit!” Matt snapped. “Look at this! At the risk of getting caught by the X secret police—Zyler, I can’t even afford secret police. Whoever sent this to Cordera is not her friend, and going on the fact that he asked her to meet him in Y, I’d be willing to wager it was Emperor Ramsey.” He choked over his words. If Ramsey had managed to trick Cordera into stumbling right into his clutches, he’d no doubt done something terrible to her. His insides knotted with worry.

She’s an enemy of the state, but damnit, she’s still my sister, and if he’s hurt her…

He nearly overturned the table on the way to the phone in the hallway. He dialed his direct line to the Y palace and waited through four rings before someone answered. “Good afternoon, you’ve reached the Seat of the Y—“

“This is First Secretary Mathias Luto of the People’s Republic of X. Whoever you are, you’d better put Ramsey on the line right now or Heaven help you, bombs will fly!”

“Y-yessir. One moment please.” Matt heard the phone change hands. Then…

“Emperor Ramsey speaking.”

“What have you done to my sister?”

Ramsey snickered. “I knew sooner or later you’d find out Cordera had been to see me, Mathias. I just thought it would be much sooner.”

“Cut the shit, Ramsey, and tell me where she is!”

“Quite unfortunately for my own tactical position, but fortunately for yours, she’s abandoned her revolutionary efforts.”

“Already? Bullshit.”

“It’s true. After a long heart-to-heart chat with yours truly, she decided to depart for the greener pastures of America and leave our mad portion of the world behind her. She did leave some of her belongings with me, though. I’ll send those over to you posthaste.” With that, Ramsey hung up.

Within the hour, a square parcel was rush-delivered to the capital doorstep. Fearing it was a bomb, Matt had a pair of technicians open it with utmost care. It turned out to contain one of Cordera’s shirts, bloodied and bullet-battered.

Matt called Ramsey back in a fit of rage, Zyler lingering a few paces away alternating between angry disorientation and incredulous grief. “You bastard! I’ll kill you! You’ll pay for this. I’ll—I’ll—“

“You’ll what, Mathias?” taunted Ramsey. “Declare war on me?”

“You’re damn right! Consider us at war!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Ramsey said ominously. “Cordera was just the beginning. Should you become more trouble to me than you’re worth, I’ll see to it that everyone you hold near and dear ends up no better than Carlot Nash.”

Matt’s throat constricted. Hearing Carlot’s name awakened all the grief and turmoil he was normally so good at hiding. Paranoia closed in on him from every direction. What power, he wondered with dread, did Ramsey have to carry out his threat? And how had he known about Carlot?

“You have thirty minutes to revoke your declaration of war.” Ramsey hung up laughing.

“It’s the new computer system,” Matt concluded. “He…what’s it called? Hacked it.”

Zyler smacked himself in the forehead and muttered to himself. “Has to be bluffing. He has to be! No way she’s dead. Oh, if she’s dead, it’s all my—I should have—I should have joined her—been there with her…”

“Doctor! Are you listening to me?”

“What? Oh. Sorry. I just—“

“Carlot’s file. Ramsey’s hacked it, or else gotten someone else to do it for him.”

“Unlikely. The last I heard, the network was bulletproof,” said Zyler. “Cordera…Cordera made sure of it. The Carlot Nash isn’t anything Ramsey couldn’t have herd from rumor. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I heard—“

“Would a rumor spread all the way to Y like that?” Matt interrupted the doctor. He made for the main lab, giving Zyler no choice but to follow. “Check the file. See if it’s been corrupted.”

“I’m a doctor, not a data security expert.”

“What you are is getting on my last nerve. Pull up the goddamn file!”

Zyler wheeled himself up to the computer desk and turned on the machine. Logged in. Performed a file search. Looked up at Matt.

“Well?”

“There is no file for Carlot Nash.”

“Check with the search terms ‘political subversive’ and ‘registered prostitute under X Empire regime’. “

“I’ve checked everything, comrade. It’s not here.”

“What do you mean it’s not there?”

“I mean exactly what I say. Carlot’s. File. Does. Not. Exist.”



Chapter Seven



"There must be some mistake," Matt insisted. "Check again. Check the paper records, check--check the classified stuff."

"I don't have the access codes to classified."

"C-zero-R-D-three-four," said Matt. Zyler entered the code.

"Oh."

"What is it?"

"Bad," said Zyler, backing away from the desk. "Pull up a chair. This isn't the sort of thing you read standing up, at risk of fainting."

"Zyler, what are you talking about?" Growling irritably, Matt yanked a chair from under a nearby table and sat in front of the computer. The file on the screen was a portion of his own medical record.



Patient: Mathias Luto

Committed by: Francis Dencourt



The subject's ramblings are incoherent and he appears quite delirious from loss of blood. About 25% of his wounds appear to be self-inflicted; the others, he claims, were inflicted by his mother. His belief in his own claims is undeniable, and the mother has been brought under question once before. Family is notably dysfunctional.

Has dropped several names contemptuously, insulting everyone from his mother to the doctors to his known best friends to the head of the X Kingdom's economic board. Only one name seems to bear positive connotations to him--Carlot Nash. According to state records, no such person exists.



"What the--?" Matt's eyes were glued to the screen, so wide he felt like they might pop out of his skull. "That's imposs--it's imposs--"

He couldn't even say it.

* * * * *

The phone rang at the Subsidy too early for business to start picking up. "Who could that be?" the bartender wondered aloud as he answered the phone. "Uh huh. Alright, I'll put 'im on. Frankie, it's for you!"

He tossed the cordless phone to Frankie, who caught it with a fumble before pressing it between his ear and shoulder so he could continue refilling napkin dispensers. "Y'got Frankie Dencourt on the line. What's up?"

"Frankie." It was Matt. "Did you ever have me hospitalized?"

"Yeah, don't you remember? I had you committed after you made up that fake girlfriend. They only held you for like, a day, your mom ordered you out to save face…but yeah."

"Hold up, Frankie. What fake girlfriend?"

Frankie sighed in irritation. "This is exactly what caused the rift in our friendship. I keep telling you, you need to get over this Carlot thing. And sometimes you listen, but you always relapse, which is exactly what you're doing now."

"But Carlot…Carlot is…"

"Look, Matt, I know you have supreme mandate over national affairs, but you're not my boss, you're not my responsibility, and I'm not going to subject myself to your mad ramblings. Call me again when you're sane." Frankie hung up and tossed the phone back to the bartender.

Looking up at the ceiling, he sifted through his memory banks and tried to think of exactly when Matt had lost it. It had been around the time they were both eighteen, he tentatively recalled. Yes, that's right. Matt had found a copy of The Communist Manifesto in the queen's archive of banned literature. Then, it had all gone downhill. Matt rented that slummy little apartment and got into the habit of disappearing from court at random intervals, and when Frankie asked what he was doing while he was away, he claimed he was meeting the lovely, mysterious, driven, saintly, out-of-this-world Carlot Nash, in his adoration for whom he'd taken up arms in the communist cause.

"But I thought you've been a commie. Didn't you steal that book from the censor?"

"What? No, it's Carlot's, actually."

"Okay, but I could've sworn…"

When Matt took Frankie to meet this paragon of womankind, Frankie found himself being introduced to thin air and expected to shake hands.

At first, Frankie thought Matt's imaginary friend was harmless, but he changed his mind when buildings started to burn for the revolutionary cause. He did some sleuthing, bought drinks for people in Matt's growing army and interviewed them once they were drunk enough to spill secrets.

"Oh, Comrade Luto gives the most inspired speeches at the meetings. It's the strangest thing, though: afterward, he stands in the corner just…just talking to himself. Saying things like, 'Brilliant speech tonight. You were great, Carlot.' Always Carlot."

Sensing Matt's insanity was getting out of hand, Frankie brought him to a doctor, only to have Queen Alba bail him out as if he were in jail and not under the care of a learned physician. She tried to cover for his madness, but the next week had him in fits of psychosis, screaming, "She killed her! Killed her! She'll pay! I'll be sure she pays!" And shortly after that, the queen's head rolled.

All over a girl who never existed.

Frankie sighed and glanced out the window of the Subsidy into the filthy, empty street. Matt preached the goodness of his economic system wholeheartedly, but deep down he had to know as well as everyone else that it was inefficient. Perhaps his mind had invented Carlot so her love could act as a justification for the manifesto he'd adopted.

Because Heaven knows it has no justification based in reality.

* * * * *

Matt listened to the dialtone for several seconds after Frankie hung up on him. Then he replaced the receiver on the hook. He didn't feel the phone leave his hand, his fingers were so numb.

He couldn't believe it. He just couldn't. Carlot was too much of a real, tangible, influential force in his life to be a schizophrenic daydream. He'd loved her. For God's sake, he'd fucked her!

"Leave me alone. I need a second," he told a still shocked Zyler. He shoved past the doctor and dashed down the hall, took two lefts, and locked himself in a boardroom.

It wasn't until he'd shut himself in he realized he wasn't alone.

There in the corner lay a bloodied corpse, a blonde head resting in its lap. "Long time no see comrade," said the severed head.

He'd seen her in his dreams and felt her presence in his vicinity, but never before had he witnessed a full-body apparition like this. It seemed merely contemplating Carlot's nonexistence was enough to raise her from the grave.

"Oh, come now," said Carlot, looking up at him from her own lap. "Don't look at me like you've seen a ghost. A 'hello' would be nice."

"Is it true what they're saying?" he asked her. "That you're not real?"

"Hah!" Her ruby lips cracked into a smile. "What is real, anyway? Sure, maybe I never popped out of a flesh-and-blood vaj, but can you deny I've been real to you? I'm your vision, comrade. Look around. In the walls, in the housing projects and farm districts, in the very fabric of your politics--it's all me." The laugh she let slip was uncharacteristically vicious.

He shook his head. "This isn't happening."

"So what's happened since we last met? I heard you just started a war," said Carlot.

"Might've."

"And you got a new girlfriend. Tell me, is she real, or just in your head, too?"

"That's not even funny."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Couldn't help it. I like Lucille, though, I really do. It's just…"

"Just what?"

"She needs guidance. Her faith in our system wavers."

"How would you know?"

"I know everything you know," said Carlot. "Look, Matt. You need to save this girl like I saved you. Just sit her down with a copy of the Manifesto, explain to her how things work--"

"I'm not going to brainwash my girlfriend."

"It wouldn't be brainwashing." Carlot smiled slyly. "You'd just be telling her how she should think and convincing her that you're right. Which you are. We are."

He backed away slowly. This was a whole new side of Carlot he'd never seen. He'd been too blinded by love to recognize it before, but behind her impossibly beautiful exterior lurked a manipulative tyrant. "You do believe me. I see it in your eyes. I'm not even jealous. I like Luce just as much as you do, and I want you to give her everything she deserves. You could give her a whole new life, be the Jesus to her Lazarus, the Sonia Semyonovna to her Raskolnikov...please, I implore you, enlighten her."

"Wow. How could I not have seen this in you before?" Matt rebuked. "All those times you tried to keep me from reading the Manifesto, you were just trying to pique my curiosity, weren't you?" He had figured her out now, knew her sweet-talking, reel-'em-in techniques at last. All along she'd pulled his strings to forward her own political agenda. "I don't even care. Manipulate me all you want, but I won't let you manipulate Luce."

"I dare you to try and stop me."

"Maybe I just will." He stepped out of the boardroom for a second, pulled over a passing desk worker, and said, "Could you call the pharmaceuticals factory for me and ask them to send over a shipment of the strongest antidepressant they make?"

"Right away, comrade. Godspeed, comrade."

Matt reentered the boardroom with a smug look on his face. Carlot looked confused. "What are you doing?"

"Maybe if you were made up of Tzu instead of Marx, you'd be familiar with the military tactic of burning bridges."

Sun Tzu's tactic of burning bridges involved invading an area and destroying all exit points so that neither one's own army nor the enemy could escape. The underlying principle was that everyone worked better under pressure and limited options.

If Matt's hastily concocted plan went off without a hitch, when the medication arrived, he'd be limiting his options to two: die the victor of his spur-of-the-moment war with Y, or die the loser. He'd time the poisoning just right so as to give himself enough time to concoct and carry out a battle strategy, no more and no less. After that, he'd be out of the world and out of Luce's life.

The idea of never seeing her again made nausea seize him, but it was nothing compared to the thought of endangering her with a schizophrenic delusion that thirsted for her independent mind.

* * * * *

Luce was called in from the turmeric garden at noon. She went into the administrative office of the pharmaceutical factory reluctantly. Inside the building it was cold, and the buzz of fluorescent lights overhead recalled memories of the rink and overexertion. For the first time since her last pathetic paycheck she was reminded she was there to do work.

The woman at the administration desk handed her a box and a slip of paper. "You deliver to capital," said the desk worker in broken English. "Keys to company car under lid of box. Directions to capital in glove compartment of car. Come back immediately after errand. Have nice trip."

Luce gave the box a gentle shake. "What's in it?"

"No shake box!" the woman shrieked.

"O…kay. What is it, though?"

The woman shrugged. "Man from central distribution give to me, say me get to capital, I have job to do, I give to you. You go now. Waste time standing here."

"Alright, fine. Jesus." Luce turned on her heel and left the compound, finding her way to the company car. As she removed the key from the box, she snuck a glance at the bottles within, but couldn't make sense of the labels. She'd learned how to read English at school, but she'd never been taught to read medicine labels, with their unpronounceable ingredients she was sure even native English speakers couldn't decipher. Resigning her curiosity, she got into the car and drove to the capital.

Security was tight when she arrived. Sirens blared in the distance. Before she was allowed to enter the building, she was made to flash every piece of fake ID she had on her and subjected to a full pat-down search, which was slowed, to her dismay, by her prosthetic leg.

She'd barely delivered the package when security started herding her out of the building.

* * * * *

Matt received the package from the factory in his private study. Carlot watched him from the corner, ever a force of darkness as he choked down a handful of pills without a second thought.

"You know you don't have to do this, comrade," she said. "My God, you've fallen apart in my absence. Without my planning, your life has been reduced to one split-second decision after another. Tell me, have you no mind for deliberative thought anymore? Did you even stop to consider that I'll just find another instrument after you're dead? That you can't insulate little Lucie forever?"

"What are you talking about?" he shot back. "Once I'm dead, you will be, too."

"Will I, though?" said Carlot. "Can you truly kill an idea? I'm more than a delusion inside your head, comrade. I am communism. I am the People's Republic of X, and I will make Lucille Lutrova and every other doubter in this nation see the light."

"Shut up," was the only argument he could think of. He left the study to see if he could run into an advisor or two to consult with, but on his way across the foyer, a familiar shock of electric blue hair caught his eye.

"Luce!"

She turned around just as a couple of security men were shoving her out the door. "Let her stay, boys," Matt commanded them. They relinquished her and she ran to him in several short strides, her run more of a hobble due to her prosthesis.

"Matt, what the heck is going on?"

The intensity of her hard black eyes staring him straight in the face shocked him into awareness after a long period of barely connecting with reality. Carlot, in manifesting herself, had drawn him temporarily into her hallucinatory world, but now, in Luce's presence, he came to the gripping realization that he was going to die in a few hours.

"Well?" she persisted when he failed to answer. "What's with all the crazy security? And the sirens?"

"X is at war with Y."

She gaped. "When did this happen?"

"About an hour ago."

"And what's this war over?"

"It's complicated."

"Oh God…this is too much." She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. Her eyes raked across the room. "When I came here, I had no idea I'd dropped myself into a war-torn dictatorship. I--I just--"

Before she could say another word, he pulled her into a tight embrace. He could tell by her escalating panic that she needed the support. She gasped and let out a slow breath over his shoulder. "You're fine, Luce. We're going to be fine."

It was half true.

"What are you doing here?" he asked her.

"I was delivering a package for the drug factory."

"Oh." Despite the grim circumstances, he had to crack a smile at the irony of it all. Holding her to himself, with her chest pressing into his with each breath she took, making him all too aware of his erratic heartbeat, he suddenly conceived a plan.

Guess I do work better on a time crunch.

* * * * *

"Luce."

"Uh-huh?"

"Do you own a skirt?"

She was taken aback by the question. "No, why would I own a skirt? I've got one leg, Matt."

"Borrow one."

"What, a leg?"

"No, a skirt."

"Why?"

"War strategy."

She pushed him off, breaking their embrace. "Oh no. You're not going to drag me into your politics. Last time I checked, I'm your girlfriend, not your war machine."

"Luce, please. I have a plan, and it could mean the end of the threat of Y and stability to our own country."

"Your country!" she retorted. "I may be a citizen here, but this is not my country! I don't trust the politics, I don't trust the economy, and frankly, I'm not sure I can trust the people. All Russia might think I'm dead, but I'm still Russian." She turned to leave.

"It's funny," he called after her, "that you'd profess your belonging to Russia, when belonging to anything is exactly what you're running away from."

She stopped dead in her tracks.

He'd read her right down to the letter. If she had any reluctance to help him, it was because she resented being used for glory--by Russia and by her father. But deep down, she harbored the desire to help him with whatever it was he was plotting. She could see in his eyes, hear in his tone that the war was important to him. This country was his livelihood.

And whether she wanted to or not, she belonged to him--and he to her. She loved him. "Fine," she said, "what do I have to do."

He pulled a form out of his pocket, filled it out, and handed it to her. It was a permit to bypass capital security. "Get your skirt on and come back in about an hour. I'll have a package for you, and I'll need you to deliver it to the Y palace."

"What about my job?" she asked. "I'm on punch-clock. They're expecting me back ASAP."

"I'll call them."

Luce pocketed the pass and took the factory car to her apartment complex. Marion wasn't in, so Luce pried open her neighbor's window and 'borrowed' a skirt out of her dresser. I'll have it back before she even notices it's missing. She had to hold it in place with safety pins, the waistband was so loose on her, but she made it work and drove back to the capital with her prosthesis exposed and her dignity barely covered by the shield of her resolve.

As he said he would, Matt had a package for her. "It's a detonator," he told her before she could ask. "I've had my technicians program it to firebomb the coordinates of its own location. Your job is to deliver it to Emperor Ramsey. We've only got one chance to do this, so I wanted to make sure the bombs get to that bastard instead of, say, hitting the palace while he's out."

"Why have we only got one chance?" Luce asked.

Matt hesitated for a moment. "Spending cuts."

"Of course."

"Now, what I need you to do is tell whoever you encounter at the palace these words: 'Secretary Luto is dead' and 'this'--this being that package--'is the final piece of the puzzle. Those are your two stock phrases, give them no other information."

"Why?" she asked. "Why the skirt, why the you're-dead, why the--anything?"

"Just trust me," said Matt. "I know Ramsey's psychology. I know you, showing up at his castle, saying those words and wearing that skirt and giving him that detonator, will make him blow himself up."

She could sense his urgency and knew there wasn't time for questions on her part. "Alright, but when I get done, you owe me a full explanation."

"Will do."

"Should I report back here?"

"No," he said. "I won't be here. As soon as the bombs reach their target, head to the airport and hop the first flight to America. I'll be waiting for you there."

"Is that part of the--?"

Before she could finish her question, he pulled her close and kissed her deeply. Her head was spinning when he turned her out onto the doorstep, assuring her, "All part of the plan."

* * * * *

Bennet Ramsey was enjoying a hot cup of tea in his library when the knock sounded at the door. "Come in," he lazily permitted. A duo of castle guards heaved the doors open and stepped inside.

Bennet scowled at them. "Well? What do you want?"

"There's a messenger from X at the castle gate. She says the war is over."

"The war, eh?" Bennet scoffed. "What war? I was actually getting excited about facing off against Luto when he declared it, but so far he's taken no action."

"That's because he's dead, sire," said the guard.

"He is?"

"That's what the messenger says."

"How?"

"She didn't tell us."

"Then send her in! Hurry! Call her into the throne room before she leaves!"

"Right away, milord," said the guard, and he and his compatriot scuttled off to execute Bennet's order.

The girl was already in the throne room when Bennet got there. Her expression was blank, dead. Just like the rest of her blasted country, thought Bennet. Skinny and sullen, she would have been nondescript if not for the bright blue coloration of her hair and the prosthetic leg conspicuously attached at her knee.

It must have been Matt's work, Bennet deduced. The girl must be one of the First Secretary's whores, and he'd mutilated her just like poor Marion Whatsername.

"Hello there," Bennet said to the messenger. "You come bearing news?"

"Mathias Luto is dead," she stated simply. In one hand, she held a brown paper package. She took two steps toward Bennet and held the package out to him at arm's length. "This is the final piece of the puzzle."

"Can you tell me how he died?"

"He's dead," she repeated.

"Yes, I know that." He shook the package. "What's this?"

"The final piece of the puzzle." She smiled mysteriously.

Bennet opened the box. Inside was a small remote control.

He understood now. Luto wasn't dead. This prostitute had just crafted an elaborate revenge plot and handed Bennet the key to the assassination of the dictator. It must be connected to a bomb planted right under Luto's ass. She must want me to press the button so her fingerprints can't be found on the device.

Brilliant. The girl was brilliant!

But she should know, I hate to share my enemies…

He'd be a fool not to activate the detonator. Who knew when he'd get another perfect opportunity to kill Luto? So he pressed the button. Pocketed the remote. Began to draw his gun to repay the girl for her efforts in lead…

She took off running before his finger could find the trigger.

* * * * *

One second, Ramsey was pocketing the detonator and Luce's mind was racing with yes yes yes yes, oh, thank God, yes! If he'd tossed it over his shoulder, all would have been lost, but now that he had it on his person, the bombs would be sure to reach him. She spun on her heel and ran as fast as her cumbersome prosthetic would allow, and when she looked back the next second, Ramsey was chasing her with a gun.

Was he onto her? Had he figured her out? No, he wouldn't have kept the remote if he'd seen through her so easily. Then why was he chasing her?

There was no time to ponder. All she could do was run run run run run!

To make up for her lack of speed, she took a series of sharp and meandering turns to throw him off. Down the hall, around a corner, out the door, around two more corners, two rights, left, right, three lefts, around a tree, through a field in a zigzag path from east edge to west edge and back again. She looked back frequently to see how far she'd gotten from him, and when it seemed she'd lost him, she staggered, panting and gasping, into a gap in a fence to recover.

On the other side of the fence was a gleaming schoolhouse. It was summertime, so school wasn't in session, but the lively air of children at play remained, evident from the old, faded chalk drawings on the walls and sidewalks. Luce smiled. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen the inside of a school. Her father had pulled her out illegally for the sake of her training when she was still a little girl. She was almost tempted to go exploring inside, but a putrid stench distracted her. Filled with dread, yet morbidly curious about the source of the smell, she changed course to investigate.

She found the body in an alcove of bricks with a sign overhead reading, Electrical Equipment: Do Not Enter. Cordera Luto's corpse lay rotting contorted on the ground, shot through with bullets, and above her on the wall, in her blood, were the words, Gone to America!

Luce froze. Her chest seized up and she lost her ability to breathe. When her throat started working again, it was to vomit onto the ground.

Heaving and wincing, she forced herself to pull it together. Did Matt know, she wondered? What about Dr. Ellis? She couldn't just take off after what she'd seen. She had to go back to the X Capital and report her findings.

She reached the capital in record time and stormed past security into the infirmary. "Dr. Ellis!" she screeched between labored breaths. "I had to tell you--I had to--Cordera! She's--!"

"I know," said the doctor. "I heard."

"Oh." She swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry too," said Dr. Ellis, and that's when Luce noticed the patient in the bed the doctor was tending: a seemingly comatose Matt Luto.

If Luce'd had anything left in her system to vomit, she would have.



Chapter Eight



Out of her periphery, Luce saw the doctor staring up into her face from his permanent seating arrangement, but she didn't return his gaze. Her full attention was devoted to the monitor beeping out Matt's vital signs in an unsteady cadence. "What happened?" she asked him.

He looked down at his clipboard, made a note, and returned his focus, unreciprocated, to her. "Did Matt ever tell you about the previous women in his life?"

She shrugged. "He might've vaguely mentioned one or two. What does it have anything to do with why he's comatose?"

"A few years back, he had a relationship with a woman named Carlot Nash. According to him, she all but saved his life by introducing him to communism and she's the whole reason he constructed the state the way he did."

"That's right! He told me about her the night we--" She stopped herself. "The night of our first date."

"As it turns out," said Ellis, "she never existed."

"She what?"

"He hallucinated her. When he found out about it from his medical record, the news of his own psychosis came as such a shock to him that he poisoned himself--at least, that's what I assume. A couple of statesmen found him like this in a bathroom."

"Poisoned himself?" Luce swallowed. "But he'll live, won't he? You wouldn't have him hooked up like this if he didn't have a chance."

"It's hard to say at this point. From here on in, his survival is dependent on how hard he can fight."

"But how can you fight when you're unconscious?"

"The human mind," said the doctor, "works in ways we don't always understand."

* * * * *

"Long time no see, comrade."

It was Carlot, definitely Carlot. She looked so much like Cordera, but Cordera couldn't make Matt's knees weak or his mind compliant. Cordera couldn't make him like her even when he hated her. Cordera couldn't offer him the promise of security and power and a future.

Only there was no future here. He was dead...right?

Everything looked just like the Republic...only grayer. He could hardly tell one shade from another, and a block down the street, Carlot called to him, waving. She was colorless as well, but it didn't matter. He had the blonde of her hair and the red-red of her lips memorized.

He approached her tentatively. "You know I can't love you."

"Of course. You have your lovely girlfriend now. Yet you still expect me to guide you. Typical. Whatever. It's okay. Self-sacrifice is just one of my many talents."

"Am I dead?"

"Beats me. You might be, or you might be having a near-death experience. Either way, you're going nowhere for the time being. So walk with me." She took his hand and guided him along the sidewalk.

"Where are we going?"

"Just a stroll," said Carlot. "Just a stroll."

A pause passed. He said, "You're not real."

"Define real. Am I real to you? Do I have the power to motivate your action? Do I have the ability to propel you to greatness? In my own humble opinion, comrade, I'm the realest thing in your life."

Yet she was still a hallucination.

He didn't know why he hadn't seen it before. Hell, the clues were even in her name: Carlot as a reference to Karl Marx; Nash as a tribute to nationalism.

They passed a house on the left that was immersed in fire. Charred, screaming little bodies could be seen writhing in the windows. "What is that?" he asked.

"Nothing. Just a house full of the people you murdered."

"For communism? In your name?"

"Bingo."

He stared in horror. She dragged him along. "Come on now, nothing to see. They're no big deal. Forget it. Just keep walking. Move on, move on, move on."

So they did.

"I'll bet your little girlfriend is in tears right now." Carlot sighed. "I don't blame her. I'm close to losing it myself. How could you do this to me?"

"Don't talk down to me! You're a figment of my imagination!"

"A figment you fucked. Don't ever forget that," she retorted bitterly. "Do you still remember why we hit it off?"

On the right, they passed by burning, infertile fields, cut through by a river full of pollutants, unintended consequences of allocative inefficiency. "You saved my life," he said. "Without you, I'd have surely done this sooner. And you promised me things..."

"And I delivered, did I not? Keep fighting, there's still a chance you may live."

"I can't. I can't let you infect anyone else."

"You mean your girlfriend. You selfish boy, you don't even want to share with her this same happiness I've given you."

"Intellectual freedom is happiness."

She laughed and shook her head. "Killing yourself won't kill me, you know. You were more than my lover. And still are. You're my instrument, and if you're dead, I can always find another instrument. Maybe it'll be her. You can't kill an idea."

"Maybe you can, and maybe she will turn to communism, but if she does, it'll be of her own accord. I refuse to let you use me to coerce her."

"I don't need you to let me. I have my ways."

As he'd so unfortunately figured out.

They kept walking through this delusion, this communist Hell, this--this whatever it was, and he wondered if maybe all the mistakes could be undone under a different system. He couldn't imagine Capitalism being nearly as sweet and beautiful as Carlot...but could it be stronger, better at what it did?

Matt sighed. "So am I dead, going to die, or what?" He had come to terms with it now. The Republic was self-sufficient. It needed him about as much as it needed Carlot, and if he had to go down to contain her, he was peacefully ready to accept the fact.

"What the hell do I know?" Of course she didn't know. She was part of his mind; if he didn't know, how could he expect her to? "But regardless of whether or not you die, I'm glad we had this little chat. Either you'll be staying permanently or you'll wake up, but either way, I'll always be with you, comrade."

She pressed him up against the nearest drab, gray building and captured his lips in a forceful kiss. He pushed her off and spat. "Treacherous wench!"

She cackled in triumph and escaped into the building. He wrenched the doorknob to pursue her, but the door was locked.

"Carlot, goddamn you, let me in!" He pounded on the door ferociously. He wasn't going to let her off so easy.

This wasn't about Luce, he realized then. It was about himself. He had to confront Carlot. He couldn't leave her festering in the recesses of his mind for his own sanity's sake.

"Blast you, you bitch! Let me in!"

She didn't.

So that was it. Carlot had prevailed, and Matt was stuck on her doorstep in either the afterlife or his own mind. He couldn't defeat her because she wouldn't fight him. Why should she? She was an idea, and he was only a man.

"It's really over then," he muttered to himself, turning his back on Carlot's building. He was dead or vegetative. No more second chances. The most he could say for himself was he'd managed to keep Carlot away from Luce.

But at what cost? He'd condemned himself to an eternity of helpless suffering, and the proletariat of X as well.

Lost in a sea of self-loathing, he took to wandering through the dank city streets. Along his aimless way, he passed an empty slaughterhouse. Through the film of blood unevenly coating the windows, he saw an axe hanging on the wall. He stared at it for several minutes, if time worked the same way in limbo as it had in life, until finally, in a sudden flash, he found, in the glint of the axe blade, incentive.

An idea.

He knew what he'd have to do.

He tried the slaughterhouse door. It was unlocked. In no time at all, he was in and out with the axe and back on Carlot's porch. He knocked.

"Who is it?" his delusion called through the door.

"Your esteemed comrade Fascism. I thought we might have a chat."

She opened the door and tried to slam it the second she saw him, but he pushed back and forced his way inside.

"Wh-what are you doing with that axe?" she whimpered as he backed her into a corner.

"Reclaiming my autonomy."

"You don't have to do that. Don't you see?" Her voice trembled. She was desperate. "I'm on your side. I changed the world for you."

Deaf to her pleas, he raised the axe and lobbed her head clean off.

* * * * *

He was free. In putting his own hands to Carlot, he'd broken out of her labyrinth and thrown off the shackles of collectivist ideology. He opened his eyes and breathed air.

Before he could determine where he was, a force knocked him back. A fist. He blinked. He was in the capital infirmary, propped against pillows in a hospital cot and hooked up to monitors. Zyler and Luce were there. Luce had just punched him in the chest.

"Don't hit him," said Zyler, but she paid him no mind.

"Mathias Luto, what in Hell's name were you thinking?" she demanded. "You almost killed yourself!"

"At the time, that was kind of the point."

She punched him again. He winced.

"I was thinking…" He gasped. "I was thinking I was too damn crazy. For you."

"Damn crazy indeed! Why didn't you just tell me you were a schizo? Why didn't you just get help?"

For a second, he could do nothing but stare at her. Was he really hearing get help from the girl whose codeine addiction would have killed her had it not been for his help?

"Answer me!" she snapped.

"Sorry," he said. "It's just…kind of mental to hear get help from someone who considers herself for all practical purposes dead."

Before he knew what hit him, she'd flung herself upon him, wrapping her arms around him in a movement that forced the air from his lungs. Once he recovered, he reciprocated the hug, pulling her onto the bed with him. "Haven't you heard?" she whispered. "I'm not dead anymore. Not since you brought me back to life."

* * * * *

Cordera's funeral took place closed-casket in the back gardens of the capital building. While the mourners gathered, Matt, Luce, and Dr. Ellis--or Zyler, as he'd insisted she call him--snuck off into the kitchen to reminisce on their own, since, as Luce had put it, "funerals never do the dead any justice".

"Remember when Cordera and me used to work this kitchen together?" said Zyler. "Back when it was just the three of us against the world?"

"Those were the days," said Matt. "You two were the coolest. Without you I'd have gone crazy in that nut house of an empire."

"Dude, you were the coolest," Zyler replied. "They should give out prizes for people from stuck-up royal families who stay down-to-earth enough to be best friends with servants."

Luce listened to the conversation leaning on a large soup pot. Even though she hadn't been there for the memories the other two were reliving, she felt like she was part of the exchange--part of the family.

"Hey, Z, excuse me for just one second," Matt said suddenly. "I've got to hash out some political stuff with Luce." Before Luce could react, he'd taken her by the hand and pulled her into the hall.

She raised an eyebrow. "Politics, Matt?"

"Yeah. I've been thinking, maybe it's time X moved to a freer, more flexible market."

"Gee, what gave you that idea? The deplorable state of your stock market, or the starving, crying beggars in the streets?" she retorted. "Anyway, why are you telling me this in private?"

"Well, I just figured I ought to run things by you if you're going to be my first lady. Oh, that's the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Will you marry me?"

She gaped. Her whole body went numb. "When did you decide you were going to ask me?"

"Between waking up from a coma and getting punched by you and getting the conformation that Bennet Ramsey was dead." He got on one knee, pulled a velvet box from his pocket, and opened it to reveal a gleaming ring. "Y isn't going to forget this. We could all be firebombed tomorrow, but when I woke up and you told me I'd brought you back to life, I realized you'd done the exact same thing for me and I want to spend however few days I have left fixing everything I ever messed up with you by my side."

Mist formed in her eyes. "This is a terrible idea. We could fall apart in a heartbeat."

"Or get killed," he reminded her.

"Of course."

If she looked back into her personal history, the decisions she least regretted were the ones that were objectively terrible--convincing Vanya Sadykov to chop off her leg, for instance, and faking her own suicide. Objectively terrible, but when taken for the sake of freedom--or love--they became the best ideas of her life.

Blinking back the tears, she took the ring out of the box and slipped it onto her finger. "You know what they say. Carpe--"

Before she could finish her sentence, Matt rose to his feet and seized her lips with his. She melted into his arms, and for the first time in longer than she could remember, she was truly happy, and overcome by the notion that while life had broken her, someday she might be whole.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 2:11 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

0 comments

Post a Comment