We have an offer for you. Wealth, comfort, anonymity and safety. No more running, no more worries of whether this organization to which you belong will destroy you. A new life.
Vania leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. She'd been feeling cranky and feverish all day, and this really wasn't helping.
The message had come from "Jocasta Meliaan", whom the message identifiers verified as being a low-ranking member of Kaalakiota. It was possible to do a search through KK's database - they kept their employment records open to the general public - but Vania already knew she would find no one there by that name. Jocasta didn't exist. She was a facade for the Caldari State forces.
We know you're close to the leader. This is a terrorist organization you're involved with, and while they're ostensibly improving worker conditions, they are in fact working against the Caldari State. All you will ever accomplish with this group is more bloodshed and more violence. The recent freighter loss alone killed tens of thousands.
All we ask is that you help an agent of ours get close to your leader. We will get the person into your organization andyou will take over from there. No one but you will ever know who this agent is; no one will ever link you to the agent's presence.
This is the best way to defuse the situation without undue harm, and the only way that you and your companions will make it through alive.
Vania shook her head and deleted the message. She couldn't for the life of her imagine what would make these people think she could be swayed their way. Yes, she'd attached herself to Melarius, and yes, if she looked deep inside, she'd probably find the motivation to be self-preservation rather than morality or love. The factory floors had held little future, certainly. But neither did turncoating.
She got up, put on some warmer clothes and headed out into the hallways. They were traveling on a small industrial ship, modified to accommodate various pieces of stealth and communications equipment, and outfitted with excellent medical facilities in case of combat casualties. There was enough space for just over a thousand people, though their rations would keep at most a few hundred going.
Vania headed for the ops room. The metal walkways echoed under her footsteps, and the iron handrails were cold to the touch. There was always a chill in the air, and too much dust and metal filings in the corners. The medical facilities were well stocked, but with these kinds of living arrangements, and in such an enclosed space, colds and illness remained an endless source of frustration.
Most of the people she passed on her way there were other ex-factory workers, though there were some that had a distinct air of bureaucracy around them. She found herself wondering which ones were potential traitors, but closed off that line of thought. Paranoia wouldn't do her any good.
In the ops room, Melarius was crouched over tactical maps, discussing engagement tactics with Genharis Yuvoka. The latter was Melarius's right-hand man and a former Kaalakiota employee who had forsaken his masters for loyalty to a higher ideal.
Both men stopped talking when Vania entered. She walked directly to Melarius - one of few who could do such a thing, since he was flanked by a dozen armed guards at all times - planted a kiss on his cheek and asked how things were going.
"Not too good," Melarius said. There were dark patches under his eyes, and his voice had the choked throatiness of someone who'd inhaled too much cold, infected air. Vania knew how he felt.
"I heard we were getting more and more support," she said. "Especially after that freighter was blown up."
"We are," he said. "I'd be surprised if we don't pull in at least a few thousand heads. Amazing how death affects the minds of the living."
"So what's next?" Vania asked.
"That's our business," Genharis said. She glared at him, and he returned the stare.
"Rallying support," Melarius said. "That's all we're doing now. We've got most of our equipment in place, and what we need is manpower, committed manpower. That includes both of you, by the way. The last thing I need are ego fights in ops."
"She shouldn't even be here at all," Genharis muttered.
"Then why don't you make me go, big boy?" Vania said. "I've seen used tampons with more backbone than you."
"Right, thanks, enough," Melarius said. "Genharis, cool it. We're not going over this again. She's here, and she stays."
Vania gave Genharis the finger, but Melarius turned to her. "And you. Can you keep it under wraps for now, please? I'm letting you stay here because I gave up on arguing against it, but if you can't let us work you have no place in this room. It's hard enough planning a revolution without having a loose cannon firing off at everyone around me."
"Sir," Vania said and gave him a mock salute, then leaned in and gave him a kiss, appearing completely unperturbed. "Anyway, I'll head off, let you big boys deal with the big issues. But if you get blown up too, don't come crying to me."
She left the ops room and started slowly walking back towards her quarters, but a moment later she heard rapid footsteps approaching. She turned and saw Genharis walking up to her.
"You witch. You harpy," he said, sputtering in anger. "Do you have any idea what we're dealing with? Do you think you can just waltz in there, spread your poison and walk right back out?"
She began to reply, but he grabbed the neckline of her shirt and held taut, shaking her with his fury. "Melarius hasn't slept in gods know how long, and he's consumed with anger and sorrow over the freighter incident. The last thing he needs is comments from someone who has no responsibility, no rights to be here and no one to answer to."
Vania smiled, and stuck her hands in her pockets. "And this is going to help him how?"
Genharis subsided a little at that. "All right," he said, letting go of her shirt. "Okay. I know, it's-"
He got no further, as Vania pulled a small knife out of her pocket, grabbed hold of Genharis and with surprising force slammed him against the nearest metal wall. Before he could break her grip she had moved right up against him, the point of her knife resting against his stomach, the forearm of her other hand resting on his throat. The people who walked past, survivors of years at the Caldari factories and industrial plants, pointedly ignored them.
"It's really quite simple, Genharis," she hissed at him. "You know nothing, absolutely nothing about what I've gone through to get here. You have no idea what it took for me even to get a job at the factory, or what I was forced to do before then. So don't you dare think you can get high and mighty with me. This is where I am, and this is where I'm staying, and if you get in my way I will kill you."
She removed her arm from his throat, but held the knife in place.
"You can only think of yourself, can't you?" Genharis said quietly.
"Nobody else will," she said, backing off and putting the knife back in her pocket. For a moment she was hit with a strong sense of nausea and vertigo, but she fought it off, and Genharis didn't seem to have noticed. She glared at him and stalked off.
It wasn't too long after that Vania went in for her regularly scheduled body scan. When they'd gotten this ship, and when the Brotherhood had started growing in numbers, ops had decided that everyone should go in for regular checks. People's health was bad enough as it was without the risk of adding some new and disgusting infectious disease to the mix. Vania herself had been feeling increasingly worse; the onsets of vertigo and nausea had grown more common, and to top it off she felt a constant ache in her bones. She was starting to feel like an old lady, and she hated every minute of it.
So when the scan results came in, she was looking forward to figuring out what was wrong and how it could be fixed. That feeling lasted right up until the moment where she read the first line on the results monitor, the line that gave her a diagnosis, the line that changed everything.
Then she read further on, and everything changed again.
She had been avoiding Melarius ever since the results came in. He'd been so caught up in planning the rebellion that he hadn't even noticed. At one level Vania was frustrated at that, at his constant prioritization of the masses over her, but she knew that he couldn't be faulted for it. And besides, it had given her some much-needed time to think about the future.
They were in his quarters now, sitting at a table in the kitchen section. He had a cup of coffee; she had a glass of tri-filtered water. The lights were too bright.
He took a sip of his coffee. "I'm happy, you understand," he said. "I'm very happy. I have no energy left, no energy at all, but if I did, I'd be jumping around and yelling like a fool."
She smiled at that, and put his hand on his. "There's more," she said.
"Twins?" he asked.
She gave a quick, explosive laugh, almost a bark. "No, no. Not twins. But more than a handful."
"I don't understand."
"The baby has defects."
His free hand froze in place, holding the cup halfway to his face. "Defects."
"Congenital defects both mental and physical. It's called Predicatus Ingvarius. The baby'll be fine for the first few months, but then its health will start to deteriorate rapidly. It'll eventually stabilize at a non-lethal level, but not before it suffers irreversible damage."
"How bad?" Melarius asked.
"Nobody knows. The first year or two will be filled with him contracting every illness known to man, but he should pull through. Mental deficiency's a given, so's crippling bouts of pain, and only a small percentage avoids a wheelchair. Chances are he'll be able to participate in life to some degree - he won't be comatose - but how much he'll be able to understand and communicate, well, it depends purely on luck."
"It's a he?"
She sighed. "Yes. It's a he."
Melarius ran his fingers through his hair. "Gods in heavens."
"I don't know how we're going to handle it, at least not while we don't have a proper base. The med facilities on this ship can handle regular illnesses, but they're not even close to dealing with this sort of thing. The databanks can diagnose it, but no more. I-"
"How far along are you?" he said.
"In the pregnancy."
She blinked. "Uh, a few weeks."
"So there's still time," he said, half to himself.
Vania felt herself grow very cold. "Time for what, exactly?"
He visibly steeled himself, and held on firmly to her hand. "To abort the child."
"We are not aborting my baby."
"We are not aborting my baby."
"Look, if you think about this-"
"We are not aborting my baby."
"Vania, in each life there must be great sacrifices. We as a people-"
"Oh, for crying out loud!" she yelled. "Don't use that voice, not ever again. This is me you're talking to, not an assembly of workers on a factory floor."
Melarius kept going, "Do you have any idea what kind of life he's going to lead here? Because I don't. I don't know where I'm going to be in a week, if I even live that long. You've seen what this kind of life does to us, normal people in good health. Can you even imagine bringing a sick child into it? What kind of people are we if we consciously allow someone to suffer through all the things we have to go through?"
"By the time I have the baby, things will be different," Vania said.
"They certainly will. At best I'll be hip-deep in organizing labor unions, governmental committees and militias, running around while my child languishes in its lonely crib. More likely I'll be on the run, me and you and everyone else here, constantly fighting the State. There'll be no money, no proper or consistent health care, and no time even to raise our child, let alone take care of its myriad needs. What'll we do if we have to go underground for weeks at a time? Could you sit there and watch a sick infant cry and scream night after night after night, knowing that its pain won't ever stop and that you can do nothing to help it?"
"Don't you dare make me into the villain here," she said. "You don't want this because of the child's well-being; you want to abort it, for gods' sakes. All you see is a political liability and a threat to your precious rebellion. This thing you started has already caused the deaths of countless people, including the hundreds of thousands burned up, flash-frozen or suffocated when that freighter blew up."
"Don't you bring the freighter into this," he said.
"Why not? Does it hurt? Does it hurt, Melarius?"
"You don't understand-"
"How can you care about the lives of people you've never even met, and not care about the one single life you are responsible for? How does that work? Do you need to be a politician to make sense out of that one? Which mask are you wearing now, Mister Politician?"
"You don't understand. You don't understand." Melarius was looking elsewhere now, up at the ceiling or down at the floor, anything but meet Vania's gaze.
"What don't I understand? That you want to lose one more life on your road to fame?"
"Why does this even matter to you?!" he shot back. "Yes, this is our child! Yes, if I could change things so that it wouldn't have a twisted, horrible life, I would. But I can't! I can't just sit here with you and pretend that everything's going to be okay, because I know it won't and you know it too. It's an ugly and terrible thing, but it's the truth. Why can't you accept that?"
"Because I'm the child's mother, that's why!" she said.
He threw up his hands. "And that trumps everything! That's the long and the short of it right there, isn't it? I can say anything I like, explain the reality of our situation a thousand times, and it still won't matter, will it? You say I'm ruled by logic, fine, let's say I am. You're ruled by emotions. Will your love cure our child? No, it won't. Will your love keep it healthy and happy and pain-free? No, it won't. The only thing your love will do is create a human being whose only role in this short and terrible life will be to suffer."
She didn't respond, but sat quite still, occasionally drying a tear from her eyes. Eventually she said, in a low and quavering voice, "This is the first time I have anything to live for beside myself. I am not giving that up."
"I know I'm selfish. I know. That's how I am; that's how I function. I never pretended to be anything else. I left everything behind when I followed you, because I thought I'd find something greater to live for than myself, but in the end I did it for the same reason I do everything else: For me, and me only. This baby will change that."
"This baby will make you a martyr. All it does is let you transfer that selfish focus from yourself to our son, and that's not fair on anyone. If you want to work out your issues, you have to do it starting with yourself, not on someone else by proxy, and least of all on a chronically ill child."
Melarius moved his chair closer to Vania's, and continued, "We'll try again later. When it's all settled down, however many months or years that takes, we'll try again. I'm not opposed to starting a family; it's a big step but it's one that I'd like to take. But it needs to be on terms we're both happy with."
"That's all it's about, isn't it?" Vania said. "Terms."
"I guess so."
She dried her eyes and stood. "I think I had better leave now."
"Okay. We'll talk again later."
She turned and, without saying another word, left the quarters.
She stayed away from him for a few days after that, and when they did pass by one another, they didn't say a word. At last she sent him a message asking him if he would change his mind. He replied:
Absolutely not. I'm sorry.
When she received that reply, she stared at it for a good long time before deleting it. Then she started writing a new letter, addressed to a Jocasta Meliaan, with the subject line "Your offer." The letter began:
I'm going to need the finest medical care.