This story segment contains some violence and death.
???th of the ???’s ???, 200? D.C.E
Core Ocean — Kuhamisha Isles, 75 km west from Bada Aso.
At the beginning of their exile the women did not talk at all, and it was torture for both.
Kuhamisha III was called Regret island. It was a kilometer from Kuhamisha IV and connected by traversable shallows. These two islands together comprised enough territory to feel like something other than a prison, despite their total isolation from civilization and the lack of absolutely anybody on them. Each island was the same — an irregularly shaped ring of sandy shore and shoal leading to ranks of palms and an interior of lush rainforest. A cool, salty breeze swept through the pale, sandy beaches, and the water was thick with fishes and crabs.
On every beach, the exiles could stand and see nothing but blue ahead for an interminable distance. Ayvarta was back out there somewhere, but it was far out of their reach.
Imperial Guard took them by boat to the islands, and showed them the eastern beach where the dock of Kuhamisha, a crude structure of wooden planks, had been erected. Despite the pistols in their hands the Guards were almost cordial. This punishment was lenient, and they were not really being treated as a threat. Kremina thought the guard must have been confident in their traitor within the Zaidis. She also thought that Daksha might decide in a moment of irrational rage that it’s the foolish navy C.W.O who was to blame for this all, and murder her here.
But when the guards unshackled them and departed, Daksha simply went off her own way.
On the beaches of Kuhamisha the air was cool and inviting but the sun was always bearing down. It dawned on her that they would be stuck on these islands for over four years if they served out their sentences, and that escape was essentially impossible. She looked into the forest, and she looked at herself, barely a few hours into exile. She was dressed in a plain white shirt and long pants, the only articles of clothing she had left. Daksha was much the same.
The Guards promised them a supply of food, water and any necessities to be delivered weekly. But there was no introductory shipment. When the boat left it left them only with the clothes on their backs, perhaps hoping they would die of neglect. During that first day, Kremina ate berries in the forest. She saw no small animals that could be hunted. She didn’t even see insects on the plants. She kept to the shade inside the rainforest and on its edge, avoiding the sun. As a Zungu of a particularly light and dusty pigmentation she would have burned badly under it.
Kremina didn’t know what Daksha did during the first few days because she didn’t see her. Daksha kept on walking. There was a shack near the southern beach on Regret that had been constructed for exiles. There were some containers there, presumably to save water, as well as a hammer, a flint and steel set to start campfires, a rudimentary fishing pole, and a bundle of colorful cloth. Kremina removed her pants and wore a flowery curtain as a makeshift skirt. She unbuttoned her shirt and slept in the shack. Daksha stayed missing the whole time.
Next morning it began to rain, and Kremina drank from the water sliding down the tin roof of the shack. She then set the containers out to start collecting rain. Much of that day she spent inside the shack, staring out at the sand, alone. She thought about Daksha, out there.
It gnawed on her. She had nothing to think about but that there was only a single human being out there, one who abandoned her, who might hate her, who might have awaited in this bush or that one to leap out and attack her. It started to occupy her dreams after a while. She didn’t know enough about Daksha to make a judgment, but under these extreme conditions her brain was fueled by this paranoia. She felt she would have a completely blank mind otherwise.
An undetermined amount of time later — the sun had gone up and down at least twice and perhaps five or six times but Kremina hadn’t the presence left to take note of it — there was cause for reunion. A horn sounded in the distance. There was a ship approaching Regret.
Daksha reappeared on the southern beach, though Kremina had no idea from where she had come. She had unbuttoned her shirt, and ripped her pants legs shorter. Her neck-length, bob-cut black hair was messy and dusty, windblown and clearly covered with sand. She was taller, leaner, stronger than Kremina — she looked like more of a soldier than the C.W.O. They stood together, quietly awaiting the ship on the dock. Daksha’s face bore a tired expression.
A small coast guard boat sidled up to the makeshift docks. Guards with rifles kept them at bay while a small crane lifted a crate and dropped it on the dock. Once more they sounded the horn and then left the dock. The exiles watched the ship sail off and disappear in the distance.
Silently, Daksha pried open the crate with a small bar affixed to its side. Inside there were two jugs of fresh water, a box of citrus powder to combat scurvy, rolls of bandages, boxes of millet, and bottled, pickled dates. There were a few books, including, perhaps as a joke, the complete Ayvartan penal code. There were a few plain white shirts and long black pants. One large bundle of rough cloth caught their attention. Daksha pulled it out — it was a hammock.
She shot a look at Kremina, who shrank back several steps from her in a sudden reflex.
“If it is alright with you, we can share the hammock.” Daksha said. She sounded calm.
Kremina blinked. She laughed nervously. “I suppose we could. You aren’t angry with me?”
“Why would I be? If you were a spy you wouldn’t be here dying slowly with me.”
“It could be part of a long con.” Kremina said. She felt ashamed for her fears so far.
“Foolishness ill suits you, C.W.O. Keep your wits about you and don’t let your brains bake any worse under the sun. I’m not planning on staying here for 4 years.” Daksha said.
“I see. So you’ve got a plan? When do we leave?” Kremina said excitedly.
Daksha averted her eyes. ” I don’t have a plan, but I’m thinking. Give me some time.”
Kremina sighed. “Well, until then, at least we won’t lose our minds from loneliness.”
“Yes, I am sorry I left you behind. I was still vexed about the situation so I went exploring and aimlessly wondered through Regret and onto Sorrow.” Daksha said. She looked overhead. The sun was rising toward the center of the sky right over their backs. “Let us get out of the sun.”
Side by side, they returned to the shack. A wooden frame with a thin roof and no windows. It had no door and no floor. Kremina had slept on the sand the past few nights, and she had hung a curtain over the doorway. Daksha did not even want to go inside. “We’ll find a way to get a roof over our hammock and sleep outside. I’m not too fond of cramped spaces like that.”
“I see. Any particular reason why?” Kremina asked.
“Bad memories.” Daksha said.
A few paces inland from the shack they found a pair of sturdy palms and hung the hammock between them. There was enough shade in the morning and noon from the cluster of nearby palms that they could avoid the sun while resting. Both of them climbed on the hammock and got comfortable as they could — there was barely enough room, but if they huddled together they could be warm and more accommodating than sleeping on the hot sand.
“What did you see on the islands?” Kremina asked. Daksha lay behind her.
“In the middle of Sorrow there’s a little freshwater pool we could drink from if we ever fall into dire straits. There is also thick bamboo that we can cut for tools, like a fishing spear. Or a guard-killing spear.” Daksha said. “There might be animals. I can’t be sure.”
Kremina nodded. “I’m glad I’m not alone here.”
“Me too. Don’t worry. We won’t waste four years here. We won’t.”
Kremina laughed. “I feel that even if we spent all that time here, it would not be wasted.”
Daksha chuckled. “Perhaps not.”
Time felt distorted on Kuhamisha. Kremina didn’t know how long she had spent on it. She did not know what day it was when the exiles reconciled and she stopped counting the sun’s journeys and the moon’s appearances. But she felt happy to have Daksha behind her back.
It was not just the isolation. Daksha’s words, written on the newspaper, had brought Kremina out of a dark place. She had nursed admiration for the mysterious socialist rogue. It was strange meeting her and finding the authentic person behind those words. Daksha might have been a thief and a rebel and a killer in the lore of wanted posters and street gossip.
For Kremina, who had always thought her skills in life to be a waste, and going further to waste, it felt like an opportunity to meet someone who was making a real difference in the world.
But in real life Daksha was a person who spent her days in exile fashioning crude tools and chasing after crabs and fish with limited success and no thought of resignation; a person who told bawdy jokes while taking a long walk around the beach; a person who looked at the night sky and fashioned her own constellations out of people she knew, Kaushik, Ulyanova, Grabin, Foana, Bastogne, Qote, and invented stories whole cloth about them; a person who recited old stories and religious hymns and folk poetry to lull herself to sleep; a person who awakened first and somehow always crept out of the hammock without waking her companion.
As time went by that presence became more intimate, and it was harder and harder for Daksha to leave unnoticed. Kremina grew used to those hands holding her by the waist and breast, to that face resting on beside her own, to the playful nibbling on her shoulderblade and the sliding of Daksha’s fingers across her thighs. Whenever Daksha left the hammock now, Kremina woke, and took her hand by the hand and pulled her into a kiss. Often it convinced her to remain.
Exiled on Kuhamisha, Kremina got to see the human behind the myth of Daksha Kansal, the monster that stalked the streets and papers of Bada Aso. She grew to love her more than the myth, not for the things that made her rare but for all the things that made her ordinary.
Ordinary things like her dreams, her childish-sounding, unpretentious dreams.
“I want people to grow up free of the pain that I felt and feel.” She would say.
Her phrasing was different, but it was her socialism distilled to its human core.
26th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2006 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso
You couldn’t find a decent socialist paper in Bada Aso these days even if you tried.
Various circumstances had driven The Union Banner out of print. With it, a lot of the irreverent fervor of the revolution had quieted down. The Social Democrat’s paper, Sparka, gave gracious room to Zaidi figures like Lena Ulyanova, the mysterious Mr. Bastogne, and a rising star still known only as “M.Sky” or “Malinovsky,” who had all but switched sides to SD point of view. However they had rigid guidelines and a heavy editorial hand that frustrated the Zaidis.
Sparka was trash; Daksha needed only give it a good look a few hours from reaching the mainland, hooked on a piece of steel debris from the exploded IAS Cheche, to realize this. Dressed as sailors she and Kremina seized copies of the paper from a child courier and found the articles disappointing. Though well-written, the subject matter was far too tepid.
Only one thing about it inspired curiosity — why it was still printing in the first place.
There was also an answer to this and it was also easy to grasp from the paper’s contents.
Sparka was still illegal, but aside from the occasional inflammatory Zaidi rants it was seen as harmless and conciliatory with the Bada Aso government, and the Guards had for the most part given up on finding the latest hiding place for its precious secret printing press.
Setting out into the city to find the answer themselves seemed a daunting task at first. But it took Daksha only a few hours to shake and smack around the correct people to uncover its location, so she surmised that Sparka existed only because the Guards had gotten lazy.
“Do we attack now?” Kremina asked.
“At night — less potential collateral damage that way.” Daksha replied.
Ducking behind a steel garbage bin in an alley, the two women waited for the dark.
Because it printed only at the end of the week, and printed only three long pages, the SD printing press and the so-called editorial bureau of Sparka was based out of the basement of a small sports club along the Umaiha riverside. Daksha picked the lock and the pair stole inside. Past an entry hall lined with kickball trophies and storied team photographs, they found the door to the basement, drew their revolvers and tiptoed into dark below.
Behind stacks of old unused furniture, nets, cases of balls, and other sporting implements that dominated the room, there was one uncongested corner with a desk and the SD’s printing press, smaller even than the one at the Union Banner. On the desk, a young man slept near a flickering candle that could have fallen and set alight his papers at any moment.
It very nearly did when Daksha kicked the desk and awakened him. He sat up and looked every which way as though surrounded. He turned his eyes to Daksha. Dark bags had formed under them and gave him an even more nervous expression. He was paler, thinner than before.
“Kansal.” He said in a hushed voice. The word was almost lost under a panicked breath.
“Janta Mahapuri, or should I say, Malinovsky, in the papers.” Daksha replied.
“Daksha, where– Why are you dressed like that?” He asked. He started to shake. “And your hair is so long. I haven’t seen you in a while, I was so startled. Who is she, with you?”
“I am Kremina Qote. Pleasure to meet you. I was never a fan of your articles in the Union Banner, but a comrade is a comrade, right?” Kremina said with a big grin.
Daksha walked around the desk and hooked her arm aroung Malinovsky’s throat as though to choke him, but instead she gave him a friendly shake and messed with his hair.
“You should be happy to see us! We just got through hitching a ride on a naval cutter from Kuhamisha and then killing everyone and blowing it up.” Daksha said.
“You’ve got to be joking.” He said, still trapped in Daksha’s grip.
“It’s easy when you know exactly how bored ensigns patrol the deck.” Kremina said.
Malinovsky stared sidelong at Daksha while she laughed and toyed with him.
“Don’t you think the sailor suit fits me?” Daksha said, shaking him again.
“A little, but I think the um, the gentleman sort of look, fit you best.” He stammered.
“Perhaps, but I like trying new things. I wore my hair long all through my childhood. I kind of miss it, to be quite honest. My mother liked it a lot.” She said casually.
“I’m sure she did.” He said. “I’m sure she was a woman of great taste, like yourself.”
Daksha pressed the barrel of her revolver to his head and squeezed off a single shot through it.
“That was too good for you, you traitorous piece of shit.” She said. It was an odd relief.
His neck went limp against her elbow. She let him go. While his body fell aside, she took everything that was on the desk, stuffed it into his pack and took it around her shoulders. There were unfinished articles, SD codes and other things. Daksha urged Kremina out and the two of them ran out the back and disappeared into the tight streets and alleys of Bada Aso.
* * *
Under the name Lydia Kollontai, Lena Ulyanova had acquired a small apartment in the central district of Bada Aso, right under the nose of the Imperial Authority. Though her own country had overthrown its particular imperialists, Ayvarta lurched to freedom in fits and starts. Many in the Zaidi movement had been jailed or killed; she had more contacts left with anarchists than socialists these days, and begrudgingly published what little writing she did with the SDs.
She was waiting for her pupil to return. She had news to give her; a burden to give her.
Her feet had swollen some and she found it difficult to walk. So she could no longer stand under moon or rain, as she did in the past, waiting for Daksha to appear. She had the urge to do so, as if every night she did not spend watching the street was a night she delayed the return of her little star — but she simply did not have the ability. So she waited at home, hoping that the door would slam open one night and her child, covered in rain and mud, would return.
On the 26th, she felt under the weather and did not even leave the apartment to pick up a paper. A little boy courier dropped an edition of the Sparka through her mail slot but she had no motivation to read it. She laid on the couch in her little living room, eating paneer koftas, little fried balls of cheese and bulgur and bits of leek, and drinking sweet palm wine.
It wasn’t vodka, but it kept her throat from getting too dry while lounging around.
She felt miserable and started to question everything. What had she been able to do for Daksha all her life? Only get her into trouble. Only lead her to worse and worse things.
Perhaps if she had remained a compliant rich brat everyone would have been better off. She could have overcome her aversions and married and led an ordinary life, raised children, oversaw matters in narodnaya. She could have just given up and accepted the name–
No– that was the exhaustion talking. It was unconscionable. She refused to succumb to it.
She had to fight, because otherwise she left the blade of history in the worst of hands.
She had to fight to wrench it back, in whatever way possible.
Someone had to fight; someone had to sustain that fight.
But it couldn’t be her alone; it couldn’t be her in the lead anymore. The very fact that she was contemplating these things meant that her days in the forefront of this vanguard were done. She would not be the person who would free Ayvarta. She was not this land’s future.
It had to be someone to whom the Ayvartan sun had lent its fire.
Someone who was not averse to its heat like she was.
She heard a sliding noise and bolted up from her couch.
Daksha waved from the door. Her companion removed her own hat and smiled.
“Lenochka,” Daksha said happily, in the way Grabin used to say it.
“Shacha,” Lena said. She almost wanted to cry, but she was too tired for tears.
28th of the Postill’s Dew, 2007 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso
Madiha felt a bit of trepidation working with the Zaidis. Though she liked Daksha well enough, and she seemed like a nice lady, other street children had told her not to get involved because the Zaidis were, as the children put it, “crazy.” They weren’t like the ordinary gangsters.
Still, Madiha liked Daksha. She wanted to follow Daksha wherever the woman went. She was tall, dark and graceful, long-haired, strong. She dressed in a suit and had a black fedora.
In a little corner of her mind Madiha wanted to dress in a suit and have a black fedora and shoot bad guys and rob banks, all the things she had heard others say about the Zaidis.
Perhaps, Madiha thought, she herself was also crazy. After all, she had killed a man to save Daksha several days before. Not one other street child in the world had ever shot a man in the head for anyone. Street kids didn’t fight, they ran. Fighting didn’t pay for a street kid.
There was something about Daksha, about the Zaidis, about their conduct and their ideas.
Everything fit with her own. She was tired of people hurting her and hurting others.
Justice attracted her, like her very own pied piper leading to the dark below of Bada Aso.
So she followed Daksha to a small butcher shop, and a basement drying room full of whole hogs hanging by hooks, completely skinned and looking disturbingly leathery. Madiha rarely ate any meat, and the sight did a lot to dissuade her from eating much in the near future.
Ducking under and squeezing around various hogs they came to a cleared area where a large machine with plates and rods and wheels stood next to big rolls and tall stacks of paper.
With a gentle smile on her face, Daksha scooped a stack of papers into a basket, and handed the basket to Madiha. It was a little heavy — she had to carry it with both of her hands.
“This is the Zaidi newspaper, Saca.” Daksha said. “I want you to distribute it on the streets. It costs 2 shells or 235 coral. You will not let go of a single issue until you get your money for it, no matter what. Stand at a street corner and act cute, and shout something in your cute little voice like ‘Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!’ to gather attention and get sales.”
Madiha blushed. She did not really think of herself as cute, though she was supposed as she was eight years old it was inevitable, even despite her size and bashful demeanor.
From the desk, Daksha withdrew a hat with a white ribbon and a small five-shot revolver.
“Here, wear this beret while you do it. You’ll look even cuter and maybe we’ll sell more papers. Those SD fools don’t have a cute little mascot.” She adjusted the hat on Madiha’s hand, and secured the gun in the basket, behind the papers. “And if someone gets funny, use that.”
“Um, whenever I shoot a gun, you should know, I always aim for the head.” Madiha said.
Daksha scratched her hair. “Can you, well, not do that? Can you shoot their legs or something?”
“I can try.” Madiha said. She had only handled a gun twice in her life, but before that she had handled rocks and bottles and bricks — her hand always tried to go for the enemy’s head.
“You don’t want to kill them, really, just make them think twice before bothering a Zaidi courier, whatever her age.” Daksha said. “Killing can get messy, maiming is just casual.”
“Will I get paid for this?” Madiha asked. She tried to put on a serious face.
Daksha smiled and rubbed the beret against Madiha’s head.
“Yes, I will pay you. You’ll also get to sleep somewhere nice, though whether it’s a guest bed, a couch, or a dog basket with blankets on it, will depend on who can host you.”
“That sounds good. All of that, I mean. I slept in a gutter a week ago.” Madiha said.
Daksha patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll have no more of that.”
“I want to ask you something else too, Ms. Kansal. I want to read the paper; I want to learn about you– about the Zaidis. About the things you said before; about sociabilism.”
“Socialism.” Daksha corrected.
“Socialism, right. Sorry.” Madiha flinched a little. It was reflexive. At the orphanage if you failed to recite an appropriate passage from the good book when asked, you’d get in trouble.
“It’s fine. At your age I didn’t even know it existed. I couldn’t even read well.”
“I can read. I memorized all of the Good Book. I had to or the sisters got mad.”
“Well, forget all of that, because it’s worthless rubbish fairy tales. Here, read this.”
From her vest pocket, Daksha withdrew a little pamphlet and put it in Madiha’s own vest pocket. It stuck out like a handkerchief and made her look a little more refined.
“It’s a primer for factory workers, written by Lena Ulyanova, one of our many genius writers. You’ll see as soon as you open it; if you’ve read that wretched messianic book then this style of writing will be easy for you to digest. And I’ll answer any questions you have later.”
Madiha smiled brightly. She felt excited suddenly. Socialism! She was going to learn with Daksha! She would sleep indoors tonight! Surely she would be the envy of the street kids. She hauled her little basket out the basement, up the steps, out the butcher shop front and all the way to the street corner. She set down her basket and looked around the crowd.
“Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!” Madiha cheered. “Only 2 shells!”