“What finally made you leave?” the girl said to Grace. “Was it all the meditating? I hated the meditating.”
Grace Leung sat, mouth closed, staring at the blank, metal wall of the cargo hold they had stowed away in, trying to ignore the waking nightmare, the snarling and barking, that filled her ears but came from inside her head.
“Was it all the sex talk? They talk and talk and talk about how it’s so dangerous. And it’s like, man, stop talking about it for five minutes and maybe I can stop thinking about it, y’know?” She laughed at her own joke, a little too hard. Grace didn’t join her. The snarling was particularly loud.
The girl sitting across from her leaned against a shipping crate, staring at boxes and trunks. She had attached herself to Grace a few hours ago at the spaceport. She was a walking blot of black in her heavy cloak and hood, boots clopping on the tile. Once they’d snuck into the cargo hold, ceiling only tall enough to sit, she’d pulled back the hood and revealed a mop of hair that cycled through neon colours. It was green right that moment and would be yellow the next. Grace had caught herself staring at it as it slowly cycled, achieving the brightest blue, the most intense green. Then she’d notice the girl’s face, twitching with barely suppressed rage. Grace could feel she had a nightmare of her own.
“Oh come on!” She finally turned her eyes on Grace. Her hair had turned bright yellow. “We’re gonna be down here for a day and a half. We’re gonna watch each other pee. Talk to me!”
The snarling got more intense. “It was all the fighting. I didn’t like the fighting.”
“Oh, I see!” She gave a sneering smile. “Too violent for you? Too bloody?”
“There’s no blood with a plasma sword.”
“That’s right.” A vibrant purple now. “There isn’t.”
The snarling resolved itself into huge fangs, dripping saliva. Grace squinted past it.
The girl cocked her head. “What’d they make you see?”
“They didn’t make me. I chose it.” The muzzle was in her face again.
“Yeah, they tell you that, but who told you to make your nightmares into one thing?” Bright orange now.
“One thing to focus on.” Grace started leaning her head around it immediately remembered that it moved when she moved. “One thing to ignore.”
“You know, once you pick it, it’s basically impossible to get rid of. It stays that way.” Her face twitched again, she squirmed inside her voluminous cloak.
“So. What do you see?”
“I asked first.”
Grace looked right at the thing, the nightmare she’d chosen for her own. She mostly tried not to, tried to keep it in her periphery, because looking right at it made it distort, warp, make her feel drunk. She got impressions more than a picture. A flash of green eyes. Teeth filling her vision. She tried to stare it down. It didn’t work. “A dog.” She shut her eyes and rubbed them with her palms. “A huge attack dog that never stops barking at me.”
The girl smiled. “How cute. A puppy.” Her hands emerged from her cloak.
“Whereas I am covered in spiders and scorpions.” She peered at them, inspecting what Grace could not see. “They chitter and scuttle and bite and sting. All day every day until I die. So lucky you.” Her hands disappeared into her cloak again.
“So you didn’t pick one thing.”
“No, I didn’t follow the rules because they’re stupid rules. They can’t make the nightmares go away, Grace. They tell you they can, but they can’t.”
“They told me they’d help me live with them, and I can.” Grace let the dog bark, pretending it wasn’t there.
“But then you left.”
It wasn’t a question, and Grace didn’t nod. But they both knew it was true.
“And you found me.”
“Yeah, well, somebody had to.” Her hair cycled to electric pink. “They kill us. You know that right? They hunt us down and kill us on sight. It’s just vhoom.” She mimed igniting a plasma sword. “And then vhoop!” She mimed decapitating someone with a plasma sword.
Grace looked away. “They asked me to join them.” “Asked you! Right. A girl came to my house. She ’asked’ me, too. With a sword in her hand. She was a kid, same as me. Same as you.”
Grace didn’t answer.
“Look, I’m trynna tell you you made the right call. You left. You were in for, like, three years, and you left! That’s smart. They show you the basics in the first two, and then it takes a while to figure out the rest of it is just how to kill us. Three years is pretty good. It took me five.”
“Who’s ‘us’?” Grace’s first question.
“Tell me anyway.” Grace’s first insistence.
“Most of ‘us’ are just trying to live. We go where they aren’t. We get on with our lives.”
“Do you use the Power?”
“Of course we do.” She squirmed again. Spiders and scorpions. “What, you gonna tell me we shouldn’t? It gives us the nightmares. We get the cool tricks. That’s only fair. Besides, we have to keep ahead of the Order. They kill us.”
Grace waited. There was more.
“Some of us are part of the Shadow Militia.”
Her hair cycled through green and then blue before she answered, “Yes.”
“And you’re here to kill me?” The dog snuffled at Grace’s her back. She thought about the plasma sword strapped there.
“Oh for…! No.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want to know if you are going to start killing us.” Her eyes narrowed. Her shoulders were up. Then, she swallowed hard and started breathing, in through her nose and out through her mouth. Each breath three seconds long.
“That’s one of their techniques. They taught you that.”
“It works. I use it.”
“The spiders.” Grace shifted her weight to her left side. The dog bared its teeth. “They’re telling you to kill me, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Of course they are. Because you just freed up your right hand.”
Grace slowly reached behind her back. She slowly pulled out her plasma sword, a short silver rod with a single button. She held the sword crossways at shoulder level. The dog howled.
The girl’s eyed widened. Her breath quickened. She lifted her hand and her own sword shot into it from somewhere in her cloak. She held it pointed at Grace, finger on the ignition button.
Grace lowered her sword and placed it on the floor between them, pointed crossways, but left her hand on it. The dog whined and pawed at the weapon.
The girl forced herself to breath slowly. She lowered her sword to the floor, still pointed at Grace.
They slowly uncurled their fingers from the triggers and pulled their hands away.
The girl’s arms retreated into her robes. Grace sat crosslegged, hands in her lap. They stayed that way until they could both breath normally, until her shoulders relaxed, until their nightmares let them speak.
“What’s your name?”
“Mia Sharif. And you’re Grace Leung.”
“Hello, Mia.” Grace leaned back, slouching against a crate. “You can’t let me go, can you?”
“We’re not like that. We don’t have ‘orders.’ Someone had to check on you, and I said I would. I decide what to do with you.”
“And?” The dog narrowed its eyes.
Mia stared at the weapons on the floor. One pointed at Grace. One pointed at no one. “Give me your sword.”
“And leave myself defenceless…” The dog growled.
“No.” She gulped. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
“… so it’ll be easier to kill me?” All Grace could hear was the snarling.
“No. No! That’s not what I mean.”
“Do you know how you sound?”All she could see was the teeth. “You’re exactly what they told me you’d be.”
“Goddammit. Don’t do this.” Mia’s body tensed.
“I didn’t like the fighting.” The dog’s haunches shook. It was laughing. “But I was good at it.”
The two swords snapped into their hands and ignited, twin shafts of silver lighting the tiny space. Mia held hers straight, pointed at Grace’s neck. Grace pivoted and swung her arm, slashing across Mia’s chest.
Grace shoved the two halves of Mia’s corpse into one end of the hold and spent the next day and a half at the other end, trying to ignore the smell and her own desire to hack it into smaller and smaller pieces.