TRIGGER WARNING: this episode contains scenes of medical torture and a PTSD flashback. Viewer discretion is advised.
Alix felt small and grubby whenever she was in Solsva vrenli, even if she kept out of sight.
Vrenli just meant ‘hearth’. It was the place where each caste lived, the central fire that they gathered around to be born and marry and die. Once, long ago, Solsva vrenli had been where tanners and smiths lived. Then the smiths became factory workers, and then the Revolution happened and the workers became the highest caste. Now Solsva vrenli had towers that nearly grazed the sky, and the people who lived there were rich as could be, in both money and grease.
And right now, Alix and Vrenli were in a maintenance tunnel under its streets. Shining stainless steel pipes and odd copper wires mingled together over Alix’s head. She could hear the whooshing and rushing of some vast machine underground behind her and the clanking gears of the Cathedrals of Industry overhead. Sunlight filtered down through grates at the edges of the street every few hundred paces.
For Vari’s sake, the maintenance tunnel was too clean. If the grungy underbelly was still too posh for her, where was she supposed to go?
“Don’t tell me he lives in the Progress Building,” Alix muttered.
“Nope,” Vashe said. “It’s an old house.”
“Is that it?” Alix pointed up through the grate.
The building itself was about two stories high, made of brick, with the upper walls painted to look like timber. You could still tell it was brick, though- the windows were arched and lined with stone. It was at least as big as Alix’s old master’s house, and it cast a long shadow on the street above them.
“Yup. Move, I need to get a better look-”
Vashe pulled the notebook out and started jotting down notes. Alix stepped aside and squinted up at the building.
“How’d you learn Yunlin?” she asked.
“Is it any of your business?” he said.
“Not really. Just- my mother was from there.”
“Oh.” Vashe closed the notebook. “Can I ask you somethin’?”
“Is it any of your business?” Alix said.
He gave her a dirty look.
“Svelen swore blind and sideways you were a vexin’ thoughtform. I trust him more than I trust my own life, but you’re pretty fuckin’ rock-solid that you ain’t. And you keep talkin’ about your mother and such. So what’s goin’ on?”
“This shit again?”
“I’m just tellin’ you what he told me.”
“He thinks I am cause of my eyes, and ’cause we were both slaves,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s not personal, but-“
“You get put in a certain box by enough people, even the people who care about ya start to believe it,” he said.
“Gotcha. Just wanted to know,” Vashe said.”Like you said. Not personal.”
She sighed, and rubbed the back of her neck.
They said that thoughtforms weren’t really people. They looked like people, sure, and acted like people. But a ray gun made out of lio could shoot real plasma rays, even if the inside was a black box that shouldn’t work by any world’s rules. In the same way, they said, a thoughtform could have ‘real’ feelings, but they weren’t the same kind of feelings everyone else had- they were just part of the illusion, there to make thoughtforms more like humans. They didn’t have souls, so any emotions they had were meaningless- hollow as a mannequin’s head.
Alix didn’t know whether or not that was true. She figured that Svelen – and now, Vashe- acted enough like humans that she ought to treat them that way, whether or not they were ‘real’ people. If they were, it was the right thing to do. And if by some chance they weren’t, it wasn’t any skin off her nose to treat them right.
But she still felt squirmingly, soul-wrenchingly uncomfortable when anyone decided that she must be a thoughtform, even if they had a good reason. It wasn’t that she hated thoughtforms, not by any stretch- but if someone thought she was one, they’d treat her wrong.
And that didn’t just mean smart remarks behind her back. It meant the room with the bright white lights and the electric shocks and recollections that were somehow both blurred and sharp. Just brushing up against that memory pulled it to the front of her mind.
A scalpel sliced into the back of her neck.
She strained against the leather straps belting her to the table, trying to break them. Her vision blurred. She clenched her teeth against the pain.
“Interesting,” the voice behind her said.
“This one’s not a black box. Whoever made it put time into it.”
Something tore her skin apart and exposed nerves to the air. The faint air current burned. She wasn’t going to scream, not if her life depended on it – but she stifled one in the back of her throat.
“How do you figure?”
“See for yourself.”
Alix felt something pulling the muscles in the back of her neck apart. She gritted her teeth harder.
“Nerve endings and everything.”
Something sharp tapped bone. Alix’s entire body shook. It hurt so much she thought she’d puke.
“That’s strange. You sure it’s-”
Metal tugged something inside her. Someone screamed and screamed and screamed. She didn’t realize it was her until her voice hoarsened away-
Vashe’s hand was on her shoulder. She was breathing heavy. Her hands were clenched into fists. The pain faded away slowly as her surroundings came back.
“I’m fine,” she said. Her words came out quick as ticker tape, and with less thought behind them.
“Sure. But you zoned out.” Vashe’s hand didn’t move away.
“…Yeah. So? I’m fine.” Alix wanted to scream at him, but that would just prove him right.
“Ai, ai.” Vashe still looked at her the way you’d look at a baby bird with a broken wing. She wanted to punch him.
“We got what we need?” she asked.
“Mostly. Still gotta go around the front.”
“Then let’s do it.”
“Sure.” Vashe started to walk, and Alix followed. She felt limp as a squeezed-out washrag- but they had to keep moving.
This was only the rehearsal. Soon, if they were lucky, it’d be opening night.
She had to be stronger than this if there was any way they were gonna survive.
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