rating: +13+x

The city lights spread out beneath me. They are a comfort when flying in the dark - I only have the lights below and the noise of the engine above to keep me occupied in the single-seater service helicopter. Small drones flit about under me. Any big city has a veritable army of them, and Jinzhou has only grown since my last visit. The streets below are swarming with people, mostly dockworkers, let off from their shift and hoping to drink or party the night away. I envy them, sometimes.

I scan the horizon for any open helipads. I find none, but I do spot the massive superstructure of the Venerable projecting its lights onto the calm sea beneath it. The whole ship is illuminated, casting nearly the entire port complex in an orange-yellow pallor. I continue my search for a helipad, swinging my aircraft in a wide arc between the city's tallest buildings. Indicator lights blink slowly on and off, reflections catching in the cockpit glass.
I look once more to the city streets, hoping in vain to see her. Spotting a single person from this high up is a fruitless endeavor, and far from logical, but I can't help myself.

Soon enough, I find a place to set down. I carefully fold my red robes and set them in the cargo hold. I can't be too conspicuous here - if another church-member sees me here, and tells Asterius? I had best not consider the possibility. I have already disabled the radio tracker on the helicopter, and spoofed the signal to another, less suspicious location. It's a routine I'm well familiar with by now. As much as I hate to admit it, my little late-night expeditions have become almost commonplace.

I climb the ladder onto the street below. The fog has rolled in now, blending the lights on the storefronts with the lights on the customers into some over-saturated mess. My ocular implant heats up with the extra calculation. Not enough to be uncomfortable, but enough to remind me of its presence. The crowd breaks around me. Despite my civilian clothes, my augments are still on full display, and I stand a head taller than most of the workers on the street. I catch a whiff of salt in the air, despite my ravaged senses.

I am 18 again, and I am aboard the Venerable. Callisto and I stand on the prow of the ship. I hold a pair of holo-binoculars, and she holds me. The wind is cold and biting, but she is warm. She whispers something to me, but I do not hear her. The wind roars too loudly for me to ever hope to parse her words, but the way she looks at me when says them leads me to understand anyways.

The chill of the seaside sets deeper in my bones. I am used to the cold - it has been long since my poisoned body has felt more than that chill - but this is something altogether more familiar. Twenty paces from the streetside cafe, I duck into an alley. The fog is thicker now, even permeating this far into the city's center. Quickly, I weave through familiar alleyways. It is not my first visit to this place, nor do I suspect it will be my last. I deftly pull a cigarette from my inner breast pocket and light it with the flick of my finger.

The rain picks up. I pay it no mind. I duck beneath a particularly low hanging electrical cable - they descend like engorged snakes in these alleys, run haphazardly between telephone poles and apartments. My mind races with the ripe possibilities of sabotage, to make a fire in this part of town look like an accident. Asterius would be proud, I think to myself.

Eventually, I turn down another alley and emerge onto the landing of an apartment complex. The workers have since made it back to their homes, and streets around are empty. A woman, carrying an umbrella and wearing a fancy suit - too fancy for this part of town, no doubt - steps from one of the intersections toward me. The cooling fan on my power pack whines. I know at once it's who I'm here for.

I remain silent.

"Ophélie? Is that you?"

I nod in response.

"You know I don't like it when you call me that, Callisto. It's not my name."

"It's the one I knew you by, isn't it?"

I don't manage to muster a response. She's closed the gap by now, and is already in my arms. I don't put up a fight, instead pulling her closer. My right hand can feel the individual silk threads which make up her coat. My left hand feels nothing. As much as it pains me to say, I have missed her. Though she is a nonbeliever, and personal attachments with those not of the faith is forbidden, some part of me feels like it's worth hanging on. Some part doubtless needing excision and replacement with something more perfect, but I have yet to find the damnable piece of me responsible for it all. If Asterius were to know, he would pluck bits from me like a vulture at a carcass until he found it, and…

"Are you cold, dear? You're shaking. Let's come in from the rain, okay?"

I am wont to accept her offer, and follow her lead. Her gloved hand interlaced with my own, we make our across the street. Halfway across, a dockworker steps out in front of me, catching me across the chest. Quickly he moves along, apologizing for the accidental collision. I hear a hiss emit from my life support package. A sharp pain flashes through me, but does not dissipate as most pains do. The dockworker disappears into the crowd once more. Anger flares through me, and I reach for my weapon, only to remember I had left it about the helicopter. My knees buckle. She feels it happen, lifting me once again to my feet, hurrying me across the busy intersection. A hose slips from beneath my coat, staining my undershirt with a caustic mixture of medication and painkillers. I register the senstation just barely, my sensors overloaded on other stimuli. I fiddle with the instrumentation on my chest with deadened fingers, hoping to get the analgesic drip active once more. The effort is in vain. Callisto ignores my hushed protestations, for her to let me go, leave me to fix this, that I'm in pain, and simply carries me to underneath the awning. She's gentle like that.

Peeling away my civilian coat from my exposed augmetics, Callisto gets right to work. Though not nearly as skilled as I, she quickly finds a pressure leak and patches it, something I could not manage through my haze of pain and confusion. The heat rushes out of me as quickly as it flooded in. I welcome the saccharine embrace of the custom-synthesized morphine analogue, collapsing into Callisto's arms as my augmetics reset, leaving me, just for the moment, vulnerable.

I lay my head against her chest, feeling it rise and fall with her breathing. It's a familiar yet blurred sensation, like looking at one's childhood home through dirty and scuffed glasses. Not that I never needed any glasses. I have always seen things for what they are, after all. Why else would I remove one of my own eyes? I say nothing. Callisto speaks.

"You know what I'm going to say to you, right?"

I nod.

"You should come back home, dear. I promise you can. Things are better now."

I nod. I do not believe her. Nonbelievers will often lie, to get those enlightened to renounce their faith. I am inured against such falsehoods. Regardless, my heart stirs as she lifts me to my feet. I am still shaky, but stand on my own. She leads me to the front desk, and asks if a room is available to rent for the night. One is available. She pulls the cash from her jacket pocket, counts it out, and sets it on the counter. She takes the key in hand, and leads me to the room.

We both sit on the edge of the bed, unsure of what to say. Callisto's eyes, in this light, are hidden behind her glasses. She smiles at me. I watch the way her face creases, the lines left behind once her expression returns to neutral. I see bags under her eyes - doubtless she'd been skipping on sleep. Perhaps to see me. I wonder if it's worth it for her. Maybe it is - it would explain why she invites me whenever the Venerable sets in port. Perhaps it's not, and she only comes here out of some obligation, some guilt she feels. I wonder why I assign this to her. I wonder if I lie to myself.

I reach out my hand - the organic one, I know how much she hates the mechanical hand. She takes it in turn, giving it a chaste kiss. I smile back to her, but quickly purse my lips once more.

"Why do you keep coming to see me, Callisto?"

She hesitates. I record her facial expressions for later analysis.

"Because I love you, airhead! Why else would I want to see you?"

"That's fair. I love you too, Callisto. Have things been okay with work?"

"Yeah, now that you ask. I've been busy managing a materials shipment via Greenway, about 300 tons of scrap copper need transporting to fucking, Brazil, for some reason, I don't know. I just handle the logistics. Greenway keeps trying to weasel out of the payments, but I think I've got them. You know, we need an aerial surveyor, to make sure loading goes properly, and I think you… forget it. It's nothing."

"I'm glad things are okay. I'm really proud of you, Callisto, I hope you know."

"Thank you! It's been so busy lately, it's just so nice to come back to something familiar."

Familiar. I roll the word over my tongue quietly, so as not to seem odd. It sits in my mouth like cigarette ash and sea breeze.

Sensing the tension, Callisto pulls a flask from her coat, and pours a shot of what I assume to be vodka in two complimentary plastic cups. She explains to me that she's been saving this stuff for me, and that I would enjoy it. She says it's a citrus infusion, just how I used to like. She lifts the cup, I do too. Together, we take our drinks. The once-beloved lemon extraction tastes like rust and galvanic corrosion to me. To keep up appearances, I smile. She does too. My head spins. Augmetic reset is a universally uncomfortable experience, after all.

My head is still spinning. I lay down to rest. When I close my eyes, it feels almost like the rocking of the Venerable. I do not know why I lie down. I am not tired. I feel a warmth in the back of my skull. Callisto sits on the bed next to me, running her fingers through my hair. The warmth grows stronger. My vision fades, and with it, my consciousness.

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