I Am Not Junco Omnibus: Books Four – Six, page 28
"I'm sorry, darlin'. I'm sorry they did all those things to you."
I shrug. "It hurts a little when I have to talk about it because I was so scared, so that's why I'm crying. I was scared a lot as a little kid, but now that I look back I realize something that scares me even more than what they did back then."
"That my life was not so bad, Tier. I mean, in the early days. It was not so bad when my dad was there. Even Matthew—he was my handler when I was little, when I was at camp and before Gideon took over. But even Matthew wasn't that bad back then. Not like the stuff Gid says they did to Irin. But those years with the clone father, they might as well have been Hell. They were the stuff of nightmares. And when they found out I was going down to Texas to see John Hando, and traced it all back to my weapons trainer James, they made me kill him. With my SEAR. The same way I killed Kush. The slightest snap of the plasma grazed lightly across his top layer of skin."
I stop and remember the screams. From both of them.
"If you're going to die of a SEAR knife wound, the best way to go is fast because the pain involved in the slow version of SEAR death is almost unimaginable. And that's why I did it slow for that clone who killed Charlie and the baby. But that spring when I had to kill James was probably the worst time of my life. There are still things I push down from that time."
"What year was that, Junco?"
"That year before sniper school. Right before you guys showed up to start watching me. James came to Texas to pull me from that job I mentioned—we were doing all sorts of secret jobs that year. John Hando and I were becoming close, we started thinking about getting closer. He wanted me to stay with him and never go back, and he took me up to the top of the Sagitta building in Dallas because the Hando Family owns the whole top floors of that place. Did you know it's not just a building, but a transmitter too?"
Tier shakes his head at me.
"And it's got a duality AI. The only male AI on Earth. I met them that night that John took me to the top to look at the stars. But James showed up in the middle of that job and said my dad was asking for me. He was the clone of course and it turns out that the reason they wanted me back in the Stag was because Gideon was dying. They did some procedure on him, something I now think has to do with all that Archer stuff. And he was dying."
I let out a deep breath of air. "I knew my dad wasn't right, that he couldn't possibly be the same guy who loved me so fiercely as a child and then all of a sudden couldn't even spare the time to acknowledge me on my birthdays anymore. So when everyone left me there to say goodbye to Gideon, I healed him using the connection we had, don't ask me to explain, because I can't. But giving him whatever it was I gave him nearly killed me in the process. To make a long story short, while I was recovering in that place I found a lab full of mutant offspring of Gid and I, and killed them all. I was erased twice in the span of a few weeks because I just refused to forget. And that was the end of Junco. Whoever that child was, that piano-playing, horseback-riding child who lived in a sentient house and was loved by Johann Coot through her fifteenth year of life? She left with those memories."
"No, Junco. She's right here."
I dismiss his claim with a shrug because he is just plain wrong. "When I was small, they used stories and rules to make me compliant with orders and of course, my illness. So Gid told me I was only allowed to have one weakness at a time and I happen to be a crier, if ya haven't noticed." I feel him let out a little laugh behind me.
"So that was my one weakness. Gideon always said I wasn't allowed to count and cry. That was the deal that kept me sane, kept me from counting. I made the decision to stop counting because crying just felt better. Crying exhausts me. It feels good to sleep afterward. And then when I wake up, I'm OK again. I have new courage, and new faith, new everything. It's like a big reset button or something.
"But," I add softly. "I have a confession to make. I have been crying and counting now for a very long time. I counted your heartbeats when I fell apart back at Subjack's mountain. I counted Isten like every chance I could. I counted Lucan a few times, too. I even count myself." I look up at him and wait to see what he says. His eyes are soft and have just a slight hint of glow to them.
"But yer doing pretty well, Junco. You're still OK as far as I can tell. You're still OK." He sounds like he's trying to convince himself.
I know the feeling.
"I'm some other girl now. Maybe when I was avian I could accept that was still me. Just a better version. But this girl?" I point to my chest. "I have no idea who she is. But I do know one thing, she is definitely not in control, she's not reasonable, and all she can think about is revenge. I only count heartbeats, not stars. At least not yet. I might decide to count the stars again, I'm not ruling it out, but right now I count heartbeats because heartbeats have gotten me through everything for a pretty long time. And I've been telling myself since I was little that there will come a day where there are no heartbeats left to count and I'll never have to think about or struggle with it again. Because there will be nothing left to get through, and then I'll know that's the time when I can let it all go. It will all be over when the heartbeats stop and I can let it all go."
I turn to look up at him again, just to make sure he's getting all this. "I only have two ways out, the way I see it. Counting stars or no heartbeats. And I was holding out for the final heartbeat, Tier. Because I'm never gonna stop counting the stars once I start. And now Inanna took that away from me. There will never be a final heartbeat now. Ever. I just want them all to end, Tier."
He sits quietly for a long time, still embracing me and burying his face in my neck. His breath dances across my cheek and I think of the night we first met and he charmed me with that little trick. How easy it was to be consoled back then. Even with all the bad stuff going on, even with my slip in sanity, it was easy to have hope that things would get better. It was easy to believe that I was powerful and had control over my life. But everything I've done since then has proved otherwise.
I have no hope.
I have no faith.
And the way I see it, I have only one power left. I've used up all my powerful gifts to get to this place right here, right now, and I have only one more left.
When he finally speaks I can hear the fear. "I hope that's not true about the heartbeats, Junco. I sincerely hope that's not true."
I can only sigh at that because it absolutely is true. One hundred percent true. But I don't want to talk about heartbeats anymore, I have something else to say now. "I have a regret I'd like to tell you about, if that's OK." I look back at him and he nods. "I wish I had let you kiss me back in the hot springs. I wish I could go back to the beginning and do it all differently. I wish—" His lips kiss the back of my neck and I stop for a second. "I wish I had turned around in that hot spring, climbed in your lap, and just given myself to you right then."
"But then we'd never make it to our end, Junco."
"Yeah, I know. But when I add up all the good and compare it to the bad I'm not sure it's worth it anyway. So screw it. I'd go back. I'd make changes."
He moves to get up, pulling me up with him, and then takes my face in his hands and leans down to press his lips against my forehead. "Don't leave me, Junco," he whispers. "I know I haven't really told ya how I feel about you, but please…"
My eyes find his. They are begging me.
"Please. Do not leave me here alone. I have regrets too. I regret not getting Lucan's permission to bring you home. I could've saved us so many bad memories if I had been honest with him from the start. And I would never have given you to Isten. I'm so sorry for that." His expression is so painful to watch, it makes me want to hug him close but he's still holding my face in his hands. "Just give me another chance. Please, don't leave me. There are more good things coming, I promise. Please don't leave."
I swallow and force the words out. "But you're the one who will leave me, Tier."
He swipes a finger down m
"But you won't stay with me forever. You'll die and I'll still be here. I've always been alone and it's not enough anymore. It's just not enough. I'd rather float in the nothingness and drift away for eternity than get a stay of execution on my unhappy ending, Tier. I'm tired and I just want it to be over."
"Junco, just give me a chance to work through things. I never said I'd leave ya here alone. I never said that."
"I know." I swallow hard and look at him. "But you never said you wouldn't either. And now it's too late." I wait and watch him. Hoping for a fraction that he will somehow find a way to change our fate. And then shrug it off and accept what's true as I pull back. "We should get going, huh? Irin is waiting."
We port back to a ship, but this time I'm in what appears to be the mess. There are food machines and tables. And it's empty. Tier is getting Irin, who has been kept here since I ported off and went on my little adventure through the desert.
Ashur is here somewhere, so Tier is trying to hide me from him, I think.
I'm pretty afraid of Ashur when I think about it too much. He's never been one to let me get away with having my way all the time, and he definitely has no issue with beating the shit out of me if I deserve it.
Right now I'm just another soldier who disobeyed orders.
I jump a little as the doors swoosh open and Tier enters, tugging Irin along behind him.
Her hands are bound and she's crying.
"What's going on?" I get up and walk over to her, but she won't meet my gaze. "What did you do to her, Tier?"
He ignores me and pushes her over to the table, then forces her to sit down before he speaks to me. "Do not cut her free, Junco." He lifts up her sleeves and her arms are wrapped with membranes.
"You'll have to ask her," he says, and then turns and walks out.
Silence as she stares at her bare feet.
"Irin? You OK?"
"Do I look OK?" she growls.
"No, you look like hell, actually. You wanna tell me what's going on?"
Her head flips up and her demon-yellow eyes are in full glow. "What's going on? You know what's going on. You're gonna let them kill us in those Pillars, you're gonna make me go and I'll end up like all the rest, stuck in that thing. With those things!"
"In that thing with those things. OK, that makes a lot of sense." Her unreasonable attitude is eroding all the softness Tier has built up in me over the course of the day and I have to restrain myself from slapping the shit out of her. "Do you know something I don't? Because no one has said anything about killing us in the Pillars."
"Oh no? Well, you wouldn't know would you? I mean, you've been off porting your way around the MR, getting Selia all shot up, making everyone crazy. So I guess I can see how you'd be so fucking ignorant of the whole what's-inside-the-Pillar thing."
I wait to see if she's got anything else to add. But she doesn't. "Well? You wanna fucking enlighten me?"
She sneers her lip at me.
I change the subject. "What happened to your arms?"
"What does it look like happened to them?"
"It looks like you tried to kill yourself, actually. That what happened here?"
She stays quiet.
"So you don't want to talk to me? You just want me to have Tier and Ashur take you to your Pillar now, or what? I hear we're on a timeline."
I let the silence hang and say nothing. Just lean back in my chair, put my hands behind my head, and close my eyes. Like we've got all the time in the world. I stay like this for several minutes. So long that I'm actually starting to drift off when she finally speaks.
"It's a trap, you know."
"What's a trap?" I ask without opening my eyes. It feels good to rest, actually.
"You're gonna have to elaborate, Irin."
"Getting us in there. We can't come back. It's a trap. We'll all be stuck on the other side. That's what Lili told me, even though she wasn't supposed to. She told me because she was pissed off and wanted to make me crazy."
"Well," I say, laughing. "You showed her, huh?"
I force myself to open my eyes and take control. I'm anxious to get this whole thing over with now. "Look Irin, even if that was true, I have a feeling the other side is not that bad. I mean, Isten is over there. And Mish, and Braun, and my Aren. Even little Isec. So if we get stuck over there, I'm OK with that. For real. In fact, I wish I could get stuck over there. Because then I could just pretend that none of this is happening. Just hide and pretend it's all OK." I stop and let my words rattle around in her brain for a few seconds before picking it up again. "But that's just a fantasy on my part, we're not gonna get stuck there, Irin. You understand?"
I look over to her face and wait.
She keeps her silence so I try another tactic. "Lucan and them got the people in your lab, Irin. They tell you that? Annun and Arel killed the last of the technicians this morning. I was there. That place is nothing but a puff of smoke right now."
She breaks down and starts to cry. Leaning forward into her own lap, her bound hands trying desperately to cup her face so I can't look at her.
I walk over to the kitchen, find a knife, and return to her. "Give me your hands, sister."
She looks up at me and I recognize the crazy in her. It certainly didn't pass her over, Archer morph or not. I'd hate to see what she turns into if Inanna ever tried to put her through the same shit she did me. "Your hands," I said. "This is an order."
She lifts her hands and I slit the bindings. Her fingers immediately begin to massage the dark red peeking through her bandages. I listen to the quiet methodical humming of cleaning servos and environmental conditioning units in the large hall and wait for her to be ready.
Finally, after several minutes of counting my own heartbeats, she speaks. "Who said we're not going to get stuck?"
"Sera," I answer as I turn towards her. "Sera said. She's rigged something up so we can all return. Don't ask me what because I have no idea. But regardless, these Pillars need to be built, whether we come back or not."
"Will you come with me?"
The fear in her voice takes me back a second. She's really screwed up. More than me, even, and that's some new record. Whatever they did to her, it must've been pretty bad. "Of course I'm coming, Irin. Why do you think I'm here?"
"You didn't help any of the others out, why help me?"
"They didn't need me. But you do."
She takes a deep breath. "You don't think we'll get stuck in there? That other place?"
I shrug. "Maybe we will, who knows. But like I said, I think it's not all that bad in that place. So who cares? If we do we do. If we don't we don't. We have no control over it, so let it go, Irin. Just let that fear go, it's such a useless emotion. Fear gives you nothing. It only takes."
"But…" She stops, squinting at me in confusion. "You're not ever scared, Junco? I mean, that's not even possible."
"Of course I'm scared. All the time. You just can't let it control you like this. Just push it away and think about the job. The job always pulls you through the hard times. When you have a mission, Irin? Life is easy. It's when the missions end that should worry you."
"I never had any missions, Junco. I'm not a soldier, I was just a—" She stops and looks away, almost as if she's embarrassed. "I was nothing but a test subject, that's all. I never did anything brave or special. I just complied because I was so scared of everything. So, what can I do? How do I stop being afraid?" She sniffs and wipes her bloody hands across her face, leaving a long streak of residue.
I get up and take her hand, pulling her with me over to the kitchen sink. "Just stand here quietly, OK?"
I grab some paper towels and get them soaked with water and lathered up with soap. Then I wipe her face like she's a little kid. "Close your eyes," I command, "so the soap won't get in." I scrub her, then rinse, and hand her a dry towel.
I wait for her to finish patting down her face and she looks a bazillion times better. "Fear, Irin, can be beaten with one simple exercise. Gideon taught me this. Are you ready to learn it?"
She bobs her head up and down.
"OK, the secret to conquering fear is to embrace the worst-case scenario. So, tell me… what's the worst-case scenario if you go in the Pillar?"
She thinks about it for a moment. "Death."
I shrug. "All right. Death. What happens if you die?"
"How should I know?" she snaps.
"Exactly. How should you know. It's the great unknown, right? You die and then you're gone, just blipped out of existence. Now what?"
"What? Nothing, that's what. You're gone."
"Right. So you'd never even know you died. Who gives a fuck if ya die, Irin? You're never gonna even know about it!"
"What if I do know about it?"
"Well, then that means there's an afterlife, in which case, it can't be worse than here, right? Just think about it, you've had a pretty fucked-up life so far. How can an afterlife be any worse?"
She stays silent.
"Irin, the secret to fear is to accept the worst-case scenario. Embrace it as truth. That way when it doesn't happen, you're better off than you were. And if it does come true, you're prepared. Of course, if death is the real end, then who gives a shit? You're done. That's the worse thing that could happen to you. You're done and sometimes being done can sound pretty fucking awesome."
"Don't just accept your fate, Irin. Change it to suit you. And don't just accept your Destiny either. Meet it on your own terms. Go forward with courage, because fear gives you nothing in the end. It only takes away your dignity."
She looks up at me now. Her yellow eyes are normal. A golden hazel, just like my own, before the morph, of course. It occurs to me that I've never seen her eyes without the glow. Who knew they'd be hazel?
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