The trio trekked in silence along the meddy path back to the Epsilon VI. It was dark outside now, but no less humid. The dripping moistness was, if anything, even heavier now than it had been when they’d arrived. Lucia wasn’t sure how long it had been since then. Hours? Days? Time was fuzzy and confused, after the gassing, becoming a Unit, killing, watching people die…
Maybe Niarith was right? Maybe killing was something that shouldn’t be the first answer to every problem. She’d been upset to recall the killing of her brother. She had been upset by killing, once. Before she’d broken inside. Before she’d thrown herself into a life of murder and deception. She’d been fighting against Mirideth. She’d been fighting to destroy the evil sorceress who had oppressed her world since before she was even born. But had it been worth it? Had she lost something along the way? Had she given up her humanity, because she’d become ashamed of it, after her grandmother’s death? Had that life broken her? Or had she broken herself, to avoid the feelings being human had given her? Could she go back? Should she?
Lucia’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the Epsilon VI’s ramp lowering. As the group walked up the ramp, Lucia felt anxious. She was dreading the conversation to come, dreading finding out why Niarith had been manipulating her, and how. She made her way into the glass case and exited her suit, flawlessly, this time.
Without a word she headed to the bedroom, and took off Dr. Antontak’s ill-fitting lab coat, dressing in her own clothing again. She stared at the coat where it lay on the floor. The man who had owned that coat had saved her from a life of servitude to a mad scientist. He had saved dozens of people from the same. And he was dead. Would he be dead if they hadn’t come? Would he be a Unit like the rest? Or could he have saved them without their help? Arnitch Antontak had been an asshole, but he’d been a person. He’d done the right thing, at the cost of his own life. Had he done anything less, Lucia knew she might have killed him herself. She might have ended the life of a man who would risk himself to save others. She’d have done it without a second thought. Was that who she was? Was that what she wanted to be? A killer? She didn’t know anymore.
The door opened, sliding into the floor like it always did. Niarith entered the room. Lucia saw Lolanene walk past behind her. The door closed, and Niarith walked across the room and sat down on the bed without a word. “I don’t know why.” She said, quietly. Lucia walked around the bed and sat next to her. She was sitting with her hands clasped in her lap, her head bowed. “I don’t know why, but I know how. The glasses. The ones Ninia used to keep me… y’know.” She didn’t look up as she spoke “As we were leaving that building I.. picked them up. Pocketed them. Mirideth was in control, but I.. somehow I just knew I needed to take them with me. So I forced my way into the driver’s seat, just for a few seconds, and took them.”
Lucia nodded. “You’ve been using them on me… haven’t you?”
Niarith winced as if the words had physically pained her “Yes.”
Niarith took a deep, shuddering breath, she was trying to stay calm. “I.. I don’t know, Luci. I think that… maybe I’m not as okay as I thought, after what Ninia did to me. I think maybe… maybe I’m still. His. In some way. I think I might be trying to program you to obey me, and through me, him. I don’t… I can’t remember doing it, but I know that I have. I’m sorry.”
Lucia reached out a hand to place it on Niarith’s thigh, but Niarith pushed it away. “I.. I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve to be with someone like you. You’re strong, caring, brave… I’m.. weak, helpless, and let some disgusting man alter my brain and make me hurt you.”
Lucia sighed. “Nia, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t let yourself be abused this way. You didn’t get a choice. You had no more choice than I had under Mirideth’s control, or Unit 037’s. You’re not weak, Niarith. You’re strong. You’re so strong. You’ve been through things no one else has. And you’re still you. You’re still that nerdy, ditzy dork I fell in love with. And what you’ve done to me?” She placed a hand on Niarith’s shoulder, Niarith didn’t try to resist. “That’s not you. Ninia did it to me. Not you. I don’t blame you. Because you’re not the one doing it. I love you, Niarith. So much.”
Niarith was crying, and leaned against Lucia “Th-thank you…” They sat that way for a while, in silence, just loving each other.
Eventually, Lucia spoke. “You’re right, you know. About the killing. I was wrong. Brainwashed by my training, I saw killing as the solution. But it’s not. It’s a solution. And not one to take so lightly. There are better ways, and we should use them. It won’t be easy for me, but I’m going to try. I don’t want to be a killer anymore. I’m sorry.”
Niarith hugged Lucia tightly “I knew you’d see it the right way eventually, honey. I love you.”
Lucia hugged back “I love you too, dear. And Niarith?”
“Call me Maria”
They laid down together, and eventually, Niarith fell asleep. Maria, trying out her real name in her head for the first time in many years, stood up and stretched. She felt… free. Free from the feelings that had haunted her all this time. The guilt, the anguish. She was human. She felt these things. Her training couldn’t take that away. It could only make her numb to it. She was still responsible for a lot of death. But she could start to atone now. To become better. To become Maria again. To be worth that name. To be worth her grandmother’s memory.
She wondered what her grandmother would have to say about how her life had turned out. Oh come now, child. Life always takes turns we don’t expect. Turns we don’t want. Don’t need. Maybe we do things we shouldn’t. Things we regret. But that regret is what makes us human, child. That regret is what makes you, you. You know you couldn’t stop Wessley. You know you couldn’t save me, child. So stop blamin’ yerself for it and live, Maria! You got yerself a girl, you got yerself a life. Live it. Cherish it. And never forget.
Maria smiled at the imagined words of her long dead grandmother. She hadn’t thought about how she’d spoken in so long. It was almost like hearing it again. She made her way to the door, opened it, and stepped into the hall. She looked into the living area, Lolanene was asleep on the couch, splayed across it as if she’d been dumped there from a great height. Maria smiled. As odd as it was, she loved that kid. The ship creaked, and the lights briefly flickered. Maria smiled at that as well. She loved the old ship, her home. She turned off the living area lights, and closed the door. Then made her way down the hall, to the equipment room.
She found the box she knew the glasses were in, got them out, and stared at them. Such simple things. Just a thin metal frame, and two nearly opaque circular lenses, words scrolling and flashing on the inside. She took them into the hallway, and down to the Cockpit end of it. She opened the thin door to the right of the cockpit door, squeezing inside the tight space full of moving machinery. She sighed, and flicked her wrist forward, letting go of the glasses. They flew into the mass of moving parts, and a loud cracking sound was the last Maria heard of them.
She exited into the hallway, to find Lolanene standing in front of her. “So ya worked it out, huh?’
Maria nodded “Yep. Think so.”
Lolanene leaned against the doorway to the living area, blew her hair out of her face, and said “Proud of ya, Lucia. Was a hard thing to talk about, I’m sure. But y’know, sometimes ya just gotta.”
Maria frowned. “Wait, did you know what was happening? This whole time?”
Lolanene smirked “Can’t say I didn’t. But this was somethin’ y’all needed to talk about. I just gave ya a lil push in the right direction.” She barely suppressed a laugh, and turned to go back into the living area. “Anyway, I need some shuteye. Sure you do too, ‘night Lucia!” She shut the door in Maria’s face.
Maria simply stood there for a moment, dumbfounded. Lolanene had known all along exactly what was happening… and had forced them to talk it out rather than solve it for them. That wasn’t something she’d expected of the girl, but she admired it. She sat down across the hall, feeling the soft carpet beneath her. She leaned back, blew out a deep breath, and smiled.
This life they’d chosen for themselves wasn’t easy. Wasn’t glamorous, or safe. It was at times downright terrible. But, it was theirs. They were free. They had each other. And they had a home. They had love. Life… was good.