The subject was on the brink of freedom when Zero arrived with her handler. Fully garbed Xanthrian soldiers stood in silent rings, mandibles quiescent as they monitored the iridescent surface of containment shell. The ten-foot high dome swelled and shuddered and flushed crimson as it came under attack from the inside. Again and again and again.
Whatever it was, the creature trapped within was powerful. Apprehension built in Zero’s throat.
“She was thawed from the ground like you,” said Gyligl. The Cyldgnian floated serenely in its exploration pod, tentacles gently twitching. “She breathes air like you, she has metal bones like you.”
The Xanthrian shell burst into an agony of ember-red, groaning deeply. It was close to coming undone. Shells like these were used as skins on their spacecraft; they were meant to be indestructible. Zero watched the shimmering surface pulsate. “I don’t have that much power.”
“You have to try,” Gyligl said.
She had to try. Zero unzipped her suit and stepped out clad in nothing but skin. The thin, acidic atmosphere rushed hungrily at her.
The blue glyphs etched into her flesh lit up. Air could not hurt her. Lacking air could not hurt her.
The creature’s pounding against its walls came at regular intervals. The Xanthrians waited until the precise moment between attacks to flick the shell open like a massive lotus.
Zero leaped forward. The trapped creature was too slow: by the time it jumped for its freedom, the shell had closed up, around and behind them. It bounced against the walls in a flash of searing blue.
It was a woman. Bipedal. Naked like Zero. Same species. Same markings on the skin and flesh.
Things went fast. The attacker ran full-tilt at Zero, blue light coruscating in a frenzy from her skin. And then a foot away she stopped as if struck. Her eyes, like black lightning, fell upon the five interlocking circles inscribed on Zero’s chest. She looked up at Zero as raw recognition washed across her features.
The geography of the woman’s face stirred up strange emotions. Fragments from Zero’s vanished past shivered to life as she took in the shape and angle of those bones.
“Stop and attend,” Zero said. The words came from nowhere: automatic, muscle memory.
The woman blinked. Then the command sank in. She slowly bent and knelt before Zero, her head obediently bowed, the anger and violence drained from her.
“Good,” said Zero softly. Her cautious fingers explored soft darkness of the woman’s hair, and the muscles in her broad shoulders relaxed as she yielded utterly to Zero’s command. She transmitted, thinking very precisely in Gyligl’s direction: I have her.
Despite everything, the Xanthrians were extremely reluctant to entrust the subject to our care, Gyligl transmitted. It was a test of our newfound peace.
They were back on «Men Ninhylgn», the Cyldgnian flagship. Next to Gyligl, Zero swam through the honey-thick liquid that filled the ship’s spiny arches. By now she had learned to breathe through her bared skin, ignoring the constant terr0r that she was drowning. She is extraordinary, Zero said. I don’t blame them for wanting her.
Power is nothing without control, Gyligl said. And the second, they did not have.
That much was true. Gyligl continued: We are giving custody of her over to you. Find out who she is. Perhaps she can lift our veil of ignorance on your people and your past.
We are paired, Zero transmitted. I think I knew her, in our previous lives. We were part of a unit.
What sort of unit? Gyligl asked.
She was the weapon, Zero began, then paused. I was the leash.
In a nod to her physiology, Zero’s room was half-liquid, half-oxygen-infused air. She returned to find the strange woman standing in the middle of the pool-clearing, the lights from below throwing the sharp lines of her face into relief. The warm, slow liquid lapped at her thighs, lifting the dark thatch of hair between them.
They stood watching each other: studying each other’s faces and forms. A peculiar frission trilled through Zero’s body: a current of recognition and desire. A gentle devouring.
Hesitantly, the woman reached out and touched the circles on Zero’s chest, and a simultaneous tremor ran through them both. “I know you,” she whispered. “Why do I know you?”
Her voice curled like smoke around Zero, and with it came vague and tantalising shapes: half-remembered touches, hazy cityscapes from a dream, the memory of a smile. “We had a life before we were frozen,” Zero said. “We had a people, a history.”
“I remember that,” the woman said slowly. “A bit.” She kept her hand, warm and alive, pressed to Zero’s chest. The longer she kept it there, the clearer the memories became. Her sentences came in fragments. “It was all darkness, before. I was frightened, angry. And there you were. A light, shining. And you made me feel like…” She tilted her head. “Familiar.”
“You have a name,” Zero said. “It’s buried in me, I know.” Our unknown past, waiting to be excavated. She licked her lips. The membrane of amnesia that stood between her and this woman was stretching, pushed thin, on the verge of breaking. “I want it.”
“When we touch, I remember things.”
The woman’s fingers shivered against Zero’s chest. “Direct me,” she said, her voice thick and raspy. Yielding to her as she had before.
Zero took her hand and pulled it downwards. Her fingers found soft and yielding flesh with ease, as if she had done it a hundred times before. Zero’s breaths expanded into soft gasps. She knew what to do, exactly what to do. Zero pulled them close together, chest to chest, thigh to thigh, lips to neck, the way they used to do, back on–
–back on Omega. Their home.
The woman pushed her onto her back, letting her float on the thick surface of water. Her mouth traveled downwards; her practiced tongue danced against the tender, glistening folds. Zero tilted her head back, eyes shut, drowning in sensation, flooded by memory. As her muscles arched in exquisite symphony truth came into her in waves, again and again and again. Her mouth formed the syllables of a word– a name — over and over–
They lay entwined, exhausted, anointed by wonder. I have a name. You have a name. The blue patterns on their skin pulsed in concert like connected breaths.
“Katia,” Zero whispered, trying the sound of her partner’s name when she said it.
And Katia, with wiry fingers twined in her hair, whispered back, “Zahra.”
Zahra. The word fit her like a second skin, truer than the name the Cyldgnians had given her. She rolled over and rested her weight on Katia. “You remember, don’t you?”
Katia nodded. “Everything.”
“Not everything,” Zahra countered. “But enough for a start.”
“I want to see it,” Katia said. “The place we came from.”
Zahra tasted her lips. “We will. We were designed to slay giants.” She twined her limbs with Katia’s. “Together, we can achieve anything.”
The monoliths were exactly where they saw them in their orgasms: half-buried in the dusty surface of the dead moon. Zahra and Katia approached them hand-in-hand, two prodigal daughters who had outlasted the civilisation that had birthed them. Two miles below the surface lay seven interlocking titanium plates, long dormant.
What do you think is down there? Katia transmitted.
The curve of a smile slashed across Zahra’s face. Let’s find out.