“Our daughter loves to watch the sunset. Just the other day she fell asleep naming all the colors she could find reflected off of the Baltic Sea. She can name so many now, in more languages than either of us can speak. It was chilly in the snow, but she just looked so peaceful breathing in my arms, I allowed us to sit on the beach for just a bit longer until the sky went completely dark. You don't need me to tell you how much we miss you and just how happy and excited we are to see you again. I have changed the sheets before we go to sleep tonight so that the bed is clean and smells like me and Nami. We can't wait for it to smell like you too. Don't push yourself too hard, my love. I will be waiting for you by the baggage claim as soon as your plane lands.”
Anna smiled down at her terminal as the screen froze on her wife's face, her arm reached forward to end her recording, Nami starting to climb into her lap. She could tell from the darkness of the windows behind her that it was night time when the message was sent. In her deep green floral top and disheveled makeup, Nono looked both stunningly beautiful and somehow more tired than Anna had ever remembered her being. Raising a growing child and working six day weeks at a clinic for the most unfortunate had that effect, yet still Nono's eyes were vibrant and happy. Aside from being apart, Anna knew her gallant wife wouldn't have life any other way and knowing that bloomed a sort of warmth into her heart.
The sound of the Secretary General's office door opening tore her thoughts and gaze away from her family as a scrawny bodied assistant ushered the small group of officials that Anna had somehow become a part of into the room. She saw Avasarala behind her desk, somehow being more difficult than she was known to be, fighting with her hair and makeup artists. Anna's group huddled together behind the lighting, cast in the room's shadows so as not to distract the newly appointed acting Secretary General from the speech Anna had written, herself.
Coming to the capitol for her old friend was supposed to have been a two week job, maybe three at the most. But now amidst the chaos of rapid political turnover and the first alien phenomenon in the recorded history of mankind, Anna had been asked by Avasarala to stay and write the speeches needed for Esteban before he formally announced he would be stepping down as Secretary General.
But the crowning gem in all this was Avasarala wanted her inaugural speech to be written by Anna and the Pastor's compliance bordered automatic. The world – no, the universe – was changing and mankind was only partially responsible for it. The Security Council had all agreed that due to the embarrassment Esteban had brought upon them, the inauguration would an intimate event. Anna had since been awake for long nights writing speeches for her former best friend and communicating via tight beam with the older woman who was designated to take his office. Due to the contrast in what time it was in the capitol and the supposed time aboard the Rocinante along with the delay in receiving video messages, Anna had found the only solace of sleep in napping random hours throughout the daytime. She labored most intensely during the evening, long after she would have normally gone to sleep. Avasarala wanted rough drafts of Esteban's speeches before Esteban and his advisers saw them themselves.
“This needs to be leading up to something” Avasarala said one night, as Anna rubbed the sleep from her eyes while trying to focus on the recorded message on her wall screen. “Yes, he can mention the arrest of the traitor, yes he can tuck all of our citizens in at night and guarantee there are no monsters under their fucking beds blah blah fuckity blah but he is stepping down. And soon he's going to make that knowledge known to the public, which, from what I'm hearing, already fucking knows.” A grin wider than a jackal's spread across Avasarala's face. “So fucking lead up to it. He isn't that stupid little boy you used to know in university who would sometimes get caught with his hand down his pants, he's the face of the entire fucking United Nations and he's replaced his cock with an entire artillery of missiles. He's lost his footing. Show it.” And the screen faded to a navy blue with the UN logo spinning around in the center.
Laying there, in bed that night, Anna stared out the window at the vibrancy of Luna, the city lights somehow making the already bright glow of the moon seem dull. Laying out the breadcrumbs to her past friend's resignation would be easy, but doing it in a manner where he could save face? Less so. She remembered meeting him, more than half a lifetime ago, in the same creative writing class. Esteban came from a proud family of lawyers and doctors, but the boy initially had wanted to be a poet. They would study, late into the night under the same moon, the cities on Luna dazzling always and at times, distracting. She wondered what the world would be like had the Secretary General continued on to become a poet. She wondered what the world would be like had some other poet continued on to become Secretary General.
And just thinking about him as often as she had to to in order to do this job; he made her angry, so angry and she was aware of it. It was the same sin she used to see within herself. Being so sure that he was right and fighting for what was good and that fact alone justified all the horrible deeds leading up to whatever goal they had been fighting for. To them, the end always justified the means so long as they could reach it. She loved him once, not in the same way she loved Nono, though it was love all the same. Somewhere along the line, that love she felt turned to hate and faded into a burning resentment. She tried to push her feelings about him away as she wrote Avasarala's inaugural speech so that it wouldn't cloud the true meaning of her words, but what she wrote just felt so empty. The month she spent in the capitol had drained her, she felt everything she had worked so hard to build herself up to be crumbling. Even her bones had started to feel brittle with age but inside she felt like the same 30 year old girl she had tried so hard to simultaneously love and forget. She needed something. Something to fill in the emptiness of her work.
“We miss you,” her wife's voice said, the message playing as background noise to Anna's thoughts. “Just look at what Nami drew.” It was a drawing made in crayon. The three of them, side by side holding hands and smiling. The backdrop a simple red house. It was the same drawing all children drew for their parents, personalized and catered to the family they belonged to. And like any parent who loved their child, Anna was so very proud of it. Even without the smile that crept through the timbre of her wife's voice, Anna knew Nono was proud of it too. It had been a few days since they had been able to catch one another on live chat. With caring for Nami, helping out the church, and running the clinic, coordinating her busy schedule with her wife's felt out of the reach of both of their capabilities. But Nono was ever optimistic, always smiled. If she was worried at all, she didn't let it show. She never pushed Anna, just always loved and supported her every move. Anna wondered if her wife supported her to a fault.
Back, shortly after Nami was born, moving to Russia from Ganymede had been Anna's idea. Both of them had known that their stay in the Jovian system was only temporary while Nono carried their child to term. They wanted Nami to grow up on Earth where air and water were abundant and their daughter would be able to see her relatives unaware of the unbearable crush of Earth's gravity. Anna's vision was such that she and her wife would open a church in St. Petersberg and after collecting enough money eventually open a clinic for those who somehow slipped through the cracks of Basic. She taught Nono the extent of Russian as she could while being distracted with their moving plans and eventual new born infant but once they had landed on Earth, she began working. Renovating the humble building she'd bargained down and establishing a congregation took up most of her daily activities. And after, she had Sundays to lead and weeks of teachings and sermons to write for the coming weekends. There were a few nights when her daughter was sleeping by the time she came home and Nono was either watching the news in Russian or passed out on the couch. She'd wake her then, and they would begin their evening ritual of Anna giving Nono a back massage, and Nono warming and rubbing the bottoms of Anna's feet with her thumbs. They'd swap stories about their days, update one another on the progression of their plans and goals they had made together. The two incredibly ambitious women fed off of each other's energy and desires; desires to influence the world into becoming the sort of place they'd imagined and hoped for their daughter to grow up in. Their evening murmurs, the gentle way they touched one another not only as lovers but as something closer and more comfortable, replenished their drives for the next day to come. They slid into custom and by assisting others along the path to finding God and watching their daughter grow, Anna and Nono had found nothing short of happiness if at times only contentment.
It was the ever changing theories and assumptions of what the protomolecule was in actuality doing that added to making her job so difficult. What seemed right at the time seemed wrong three days later. The protomolecule had to be mentioned in her speech, that much at least was evident, but the more vaguely she mentioned it, the more similar to the boogie man the creature became. Anna spent her final nights before Avasarala arrived back in UN space reading news updates on the creature that had emerged from Venus. It had made its way far past the Belt and just when scientists were hacking up hopeful theories that perhaps it was leaving the system, it began to decelerate. Anna loaded up the videos saved her in cache and found solace in crayon doodles and her wife's voice.
Once, a few months after they had made their home in St. Petersberg, Anna had arrived home late one evening to find Nami asleep on the sofa, a mostly eaten colorful plastic plate of food on the table in front of her. Nono walked over from the kitchen and kissed her wife while she was still removing her coat. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she said, through her wife's kisses, “I had to stay late. The church was having infrastructure problems. We had to see if it was just the one beam or if the entire wall had to be replaced.”
Nono walked back towards the kitchen giving Anna the space to hang her coat on the rack. “Yes I still remember from when you called earlier.” There was a teasing quality to Nono's voice that made Anna sigh in relief. Nono took a plate of still warm food out of the oven and walked over to the living room where Anna had sat herself down cross legged into a chair. Nami could sleep through a hurricane but they both found themselves keeping their voices low anyway. 'Mom instinct,' Anna found herself calling it. “So, do we need to replace the wall?”
“No we don't, thank goodness.” It was a humble plate of beets tossed with goat cheese and herbs, some left over mutton from a previous dinner on the side. “It's going to cost a lot, having the beam replaced. But it could have cost a lot more. After we pass inspection, the church should be up and running.” She began to start on her plate, her wife reaching over with one of Nami's little forks to take a cube of beet. “So how was your day? Did you two do anything fun?”
Nono chewed through the food and blew a bit of hot air out of her mouth. Anna took that as an indication and blew on her fork before bringing it to her lips. “We went to that new playground down by the fish market,” she said through her chewing and occasional blowing of more air. She payed more mind to the temperature of her second forkful. “They installed one of those new tilt-a-whirls; Nami wanted me to spin her faster and faster - I was worried she was going to fly off!” She chuckled, bringing light to Anna's face. “Mmm, but you know,” she started, “when we got home and I asked her what she wanted to eat, she responded to me in Russian with a word I do not know.”
Anna looked up from her food at her wife. “What did she say?”
“Oh, I don't quite remember. Something with an 'huh' sound I believe. Maybe a 'guh' in there as well. But she did not understand me when I asked her to try saying it in English or Luganda.” Nono laughed again and looked over at the sleeping frame of their child, her chest rising and falling with every breath and oblivious to being the center of the conversation beside her.
Anna followed her gaze, wanting to be in whatever world occupied her wife's thoughts. Their child had started to talk earlier than most children her age, but her sentences were usually a conglomeration of the languages her mothers spoke in the house. Anna was worried she would be teased when she was old enough to start school, but Nono always encouraged it. Being a polyglot would open many doors in Nami's future, she would say. She just had to learn to compartmentalize the languages. “Can you try to remember how it sounded?” She pressed, curiosity overcoming the peace that naturally came with her family's little silences.
“My darling, for you I can try.” Nono leaned back in her seat, making sounds into words that mostly weren't real words or at least, not entirely. And then finally she said something that made Anna's face light up in laughter.
“Peas,” she said, putting the now empty plate down onto the table and walking behind her wife, her hands finding the familiar rises and falls in the taller woman's back. She leaned down to plant a kiss on Nono's cheek as she began massaging. “She chose peas.”
Avasarla straightened her sari and cracked the joints in her neck, careful not to undo the delicate folds in her hair. As she began to speak the words Anna had written, the pastor found herself mouthing them along stunned by the radiance and deliverance of the woman carrying Anna's words to every person in the system. “We will choose peace,” Avasarala spoke, her resolve seeming as firm as Anna's felt, “we must choose peace.” Anna glanced down at her hand terminal hidden in her coat, her free hand cupped over it to mute the light. A picture of a laughing Nami and Nono beamed up at her face. They drew her lips into a light smile before she flicked them away to open a breaking news bulletin that popped up on her screen.
The protomolecule had stopped moving. And it had started stretching it's limbs out like a multi-pedal Goliathan waking after a billion years long nap. Anna felt her breath catch in her throat as she watched the taped footage unravel before her eyes. The tentacles were reaching out, first farther apart and then back together again. The distant sun, gleaming off of the curves of the otherwise camouflaged beast. The process was quick, hypnotic and before its shape could reach completion, Anna felt the energy in the room shift and realized that the Secretary General had stopped speaking. The speech that she had labored so hard over had ended and she barely noticed half.
There was a hesitation in the assembly of officials around her, but when the lights flickered back on, it was replaced by the rumbling of men and women shifting their stances and straightening their jackets. Murmurs to one another regarding how they felt about the speech clouded in the background as Avasarala exhaled some profanity. She stood, her hands pressed flat against her desk as she rose. The procession began making its way over to their new leader. Anna glanced back down to her terminal.
As the general humming shifted around her, Anna watched in awe as the cryptic structure reached its completion: a ring. Declaring its own orbit within the system, suspended in the vast blackness of space. A rapture that humanity could never have prepared itself for. New headlines appeared, speculation on whether or not the ship carrying civilian artists and religious leaders was going to delay launch or not. Anna envied them. Part of her wondered if what she was looking at was a prelude to the return of God, but she already knew that He was just one possibility and even then, God had always been in everything all around her. Knowing that, the creature changed nothing. Nami would grow up to never remember a time before the ring had formed and it would become just another part of daily life.
Unless, that is, it changed again. And then what?
The clock at the top of her terminal flashed 7 PM. In three hours, Anna would be on a plane heading back to Russia. In eight hours she would feel the burning heat of Nono's arms wrapped around her again. In eight hours, Anna would smell the sweet spot on the top of Nami's head while she slept peacefully in her arms. In the sheets that Nono had changed earlier that day. The sheets that smelled of the two people she loved more than anyone in her entire life.
Anna looked over at Avasarala. She was ever so slowly moving away from her desk and trying to make a beeline for the door. Her assistant cleverly parted the sea of bodies, providing an eventual escape route for the older woman. Anna exited the office and waited against the wall for the acting Secretary General. Less than a minute after, she rounded the corner with her assistant in tow and, upon seeing the Pastor, a grin stretched widely across her face. “Doctor Volovodov,” she exclaimed reaching out her hand to shake that of the woman's she had been working so closely with.
“Madam Secretary General. Congratulations.” It occurred to Anna that this was the first time she and the other woman had ever conversed face to face and without light delay.
“Yes yes. Congratulations to me I worked so hard to get here in all my life this is entirely what I wanted.” Anna could sense that the woman's words were dripping with sarcasm and maybe something else she couldn't quite place. A bitterness perhaps. “Well I'd offer you full time employment but I'm sure you can't wait to get home to your family on the other side of this planet that I run.”
“Thank you, Madam Avasarala.”
Avasarala seemed prepared for the other woman's dismissal, but Anna found herself squaring up, her back straightening itself on instinct. The 'breaking news' she saw, the video feeds on her terminal, she assumed Avasarala had seen the raw source before it was uploaded for public viewing. There was no way she didn't know everything the people did before she sat down in that chair and started addressing the System.
A sudden boldness overcame Anna and she went with it. “Actually, Madam Secretary General, I was wondering if I could be aboard the civilian ship leaving for the Ring.” Avasarala's grin stayed plastered on her face, an eyebrow betraying her mask of total authority and control. “I'd like to see it for myself.”
A short and incredulously loud laugh escaped before she could hold back. “Are you fucking crazy?” She demanded. “Who in their right fucking mind would actually want to fly out there and confront some middle-aged man's tentacle porn fantasy? Are you insane? Did I just let a fucking insane pervert write my inaugural speech?”
Anna's mouth ran dry and her eyebrows knit together trying to find a calm and calculated reply. Her mind went blank. She could barely think through the embarrassment and tinge of rising anger. “No, I-”
But the other woman began laughing a hearty laugh and brushed some stray strands away from her forehead. “No no, this is just fine.” Her composure failed her, she laughed more. It seemed she couldn't stop. “This shit is crazy. Who better to write my speech about it than a crazy person. Here,” she conceded, pulling out her hand terminal and flicking through a few screens before swiping data Anna's way, “This is the flight detail and this,” she said, swiping again “is the Captain of the Thomas Prince. You! Tea boy!” She waved her startled assistant back over and he scampered towards them as quickly as he could with his terminal already in hand. “Contact the Captain of the Thomas Prince. Tell him that the UN Secretary General demands the Reverend Doctor have room and board upon his ship. He won't be too thrilled, but there's not a fucking thing he can do about it. Do it now.”
“Oh. I um.” Anna's mind quickly recounted everything that had transpired. “Thank... you?”
Avasarala waved off her gratitude. “Consider it an apology for abducting you from the courtyard of your church, of all places,” she scoffed, her nerves back after terrorizing the intern. “You'll probably just be replacing some shitty artist on board, anyway. Well have a good life or what's left of it and if I were you, I'd tell my spouse and child that I won't be making it home for dinner, tonight.”
Anna nodded, remembering her family in all this and realizing that she had a very unpleasant call to make. “Thank you, Madam Secretary General.”
She noticed Avasarala scoffed whenever she called her by title, and felt that she was missing something humorous in all this. Anna smiled at her, not entirely sure of whatever it was, but she supposed she could always guess. She took her leave and walked past the other woman. “And Doctor?” Anna turned back and met with a smile that was all teeth. “Great fucking speech.”
She returned to her room in a daze, the blankets on her bed strewn in different directions; a testament to countless sleepless nights. Her small amount of luggage she was able to grab packed and ready to be taken to her flight. The indentation sunken into the top sheet of the bed was fading but still unmistakably loyal to her form and hers alone. She absentmindedly held a pillow to her chest and it smelled like dry hotel shampoo.
She was going. She was going to the Ring on the far reaches of her solar system. She stifled an excited laugh and smiled, bringing the pillow closer to her chest. She flicked away from the pictures and news headlines on her hand terminal and read the flight details bestowed upon her by Avasarala. The Thomas Prince was due to take off two hours from then and if Anna wanted to make it, she had to go now.
She laid the pillow down on the bed and gave her suitcase a final once-over. She had to hurry, but once she got on board, she'd call Nono and explain. She'd make her understand that all of these things that had been happening had been happening for a reason. God had a plan and somehow, she had become a part of it. After the initial shock she knew her wife would support her. She would see her again soon.
Anna flicked off the light and closed the door behind her. She didn't realize she'd left her belongings behind.