[come into the water]
By Casper Pham
K I U G A
Outside the mecha, a storm. Subzero cold seeps through the five meters of steel and fifteen-centimeter layer of insulated suit wrapped around your straining body. You’re extremely aware of how clammy your hands are in your padded gloves even as your index finger continues to squeak-squeak-squeak across the console’s screen. A single bead of sweat itches at your temple, slowing through the matted mass of an eyebrow before making its salty, final dive into your eye. Shit, fucking shit, you think, blinking hard, but only for a second as a new dot-matrix puzzle flickers into clarity in front of you, commanding your attention.
OK. Line-to-point. Point-to-line. You trace a burning, white neon path that twists like a rivulet of rain down a foggy window, moving so fast that to anyone watching it’d look like the machine itself was possessing you. Underlying your snaking white path on the screen is the faint ghost of another one, black as a river of petrol and twice as slow. Rookie marks, you note, exhaling hard through your nose. Fucking partner. Fucking cultural collab.
With every ten-second puzzle the two of you ping off together, you feel the dizzyingly euphoric strain of a limb that is larger and more powerful than you, responding. A ghost limb, except it was more like a ghost body: 62 tonnes of taut, titanium alloy currently making the long climb up a scaffold webbed across the exterior of the half-collapsed Marlinchen Basilica. A puzzle solved means another huge, metal hand on the creaky rung above you, another huge, metal foot pushing you upwards. On any other planet this would’ve been easy, but on Marlin-121b the galewinds stir the sky so violently you swear you can hear them howling even through all the metal.
The point is, you shouldn’t be here. You’ve helmed a Ship-Self enough times to crowd a trophy case with accolades, but that just wasn’t enough, was it? Somehow, through all the career-defining battles, all the late night talk show interviews, somehow, you’ve ended up in the icy backwoods of the galaxy, stuck patching up a church on the verge of abandonment for the Interplanetary Heritage Conservation Something-or-Other.
But really, though, you know why. You need the work because this exact kind of hard, bone-grinding work makes you feel needed. A couple cans of low-grade booze is all it takes for you to keep on blaming that shitty, bleeding-heart agent of yours, but Sober You knows all too well that mediocrity suits you, and that the Academy heads were right: you only ever got exactly what you deserved.
I V A N
A GONG sounds from your console as your incorrectly-drawn black path shudders and crumbles into pixels beneath your fingertips, followed by that swift, reprimanding pinch in your head that you will never quite get used to. The repercussion is immediate: your Ship-Self’s giant, clawed hand slams hard against a steel rung instead of grabbing it, shaking a cloud of rust into the air.
Somehow, on the other side of this meka, you know Kiuga’s just spat your surname like a curse. This knowing is a sensation that you’ve tried very hard to describe in your journals, with little success. They call it Empathy, with a big E. The recruitment posters pasted around the warehouse you used to work at in the next system over promised the chance at making “a true, undiluted connection.” You were always more interested in the mechanics of it all (and the pay, of course).
You sigh, squinting hard through your thick prescription lenses to dull the harsh light of a new puzzle appearing on the interface. It’s impossible to muse in these kinds of conditions, but your head has a way of pushing the present to the side when an idea’s on your mind.
Your newest fixation is on why the engagement systems of the Self-Ship have turned naturally to puzzles. The theory goes as follows: being so plugged into the pattern-tracing means that every spike of emotion in your periphery glitters like the rim of a beer can in an otherwise pristine and unbroken stream. On the other side of that stream, your partner-in-operation is seated elsewhere in this very vessel, suspended in a bed of uncomfortably knotted alloy just as you are, solving identical paths so as to keep you both on a similar wavelength. At least that’s what you’re made to believe from the seminars. In the five months since the project’s commencement, you’ve never even seen the fellow.
From what you can piece together from sharing a headspace, he’s a brute. Reckless, and not lacking in a temper. You imagine he’s lean, hard-edged, that his standard-issue pilot’s gloves have worn down to the skin from tapping the screen so hard. From the Aces you’ve seen around, you know they tended to be fit, and the sample size of Aces that wander over into the Architect quarters on off-time is not insignificant. Still, the notion that anyone would be fucking the person they spend eight hours caged in a metal death suit with and installing cross bracing to a 23rd-century cathedral was beyond you. Being trapped in the middle of nowhere does not mean you don’t have better things to do.
K I U G A
“I mean, aren’t you even a little bit curious?” Ino’s chin sinks into her palm, a grin playing at her chapped lips.
The thick, frosted crystal panes send fractured light over the East Canteen tables stocked a quarter full with Aces scattered here and there, about half of the three dozen that signed up for the Restoration. Others might’ve gone for a post-work shower, or to meet up with their Architect partners in the West Wing where they were lodged closer to the archives. Honestly, you were just glad to be out of your suit and back into the spacious confines of the Basilica, or the parts of it that were still standing and habitable. You snort, taking a monstrous bite out of a well-earned meal of toast and rehydrated blackberry jam. “Jus’ don’t see what the big deal is,” you mutter between mouthfuls.
“Kiuga. It’s been almost half a year since we got here, and somehow you’ve avoided meeting your factory buddy on what is essentially an Institute-funded diplomatic getaway. Di-plo-mat-ic, from the Greek diplos, meaning double or two.” She presents two fingers in front of your face and taps them together. “Get what I’m saying?”
You wave your hand as if swatting a fly. “Ugh, when’d you get so smart? If this is your terrible way of asking me to join you and Bree on that double dates thing, the answer’s still a hard no. ”
The thought of participating in any of the various team building activities make you shiver. I mean, an embroidery workshop? She’d have better luck convincing you to run out into the blizzard than spend an hour taking lessons from a monk on how to stitch tiny flowers into a robe. “Wait, she lets you get away with saying ‘factory buddy’?”
“Attention, all.” A smooth, cool voice cuts through the low chatter of the canteen, and you both whip around to see a stout monk wavering at the front of the room, the sparkling, beaded fabric that fell from their wire crown giving them a full extra head of height. Despite having often repeated their name you all called them The Translator, being the only member of the clergy fluent in Standard English to the point of knowing it better than most recruits. The only uncovered part of their body was a moon-faced chin and a pale smile. “Your presence is desired at the Hall of Assembly on this young night of the 12th moon. Join us promptly.”
“Can we bring food?” you shout from across the room, spraying breadcrumbs.
The Translator flinches - a small victory. “No.”
I V A N
With a stumble in your step you pull a clean company shirt over your head and join the Architects trickling out into the hall towards the center of the Basilica. You try to put on a good face, but anything that steals you away from your nightly study of the old blueprints is bound to put you in a terrible mood.
So, like every time you’ve had to get somewhere in the building, you try and soak in the marvels. The Basilica is immense, having been built from the face of a mountain and expanded over the years into the architectural wonder the I.S.U. would someday dub an Intergalactic Heritage Site. Traversing all the meticulously sculpted halls and stairwells is not only a physical feat, but one that tested your capacity for memory. Circular indented patterns in the brass that wrapped around all the pillars were a good way to pinpoint your place in the building, as they were all crafted with slight, but noticeable differences. Sometimes you thought you could make out pictures and words in the abstract patterns, but sleep deprivation has a way of muddying logical thought. Any self-respecting Architect had little problem finding their way around, but every now and again you would stumble upon a sad, stranded Ace on their way back from getting a nightly glass of water from the fountains.
By the time you reach the Hall of Assembly it is packed with more people than you’ve ever seen in one place around here. Not even the discontinued but much-missed Pizza Night had drawn such crowds. The two designations were pushed to the walls, flanking either side of the Hall’s centrepiece, a beautifully raised stage on which the entourage of Immaculates presided in all their beaded grace.
Bree, your middle-aged supervisor whose pep could power a nuclear core, bounds up to the front of the Hall clutching her tablet to her chest. She idles by the foot of the tabernaculum, visibly uncertain about how close she should be standing to the head of clergy. “Well, again we would like to thank The Immaculate Ones for continuing to graciously house our team and being oh-so-patient with the repairs. While it’s true that the storm has set our projected schedule back a couple months, it would be my pleasure to announce that as of today we have successfully restored, ah...let’s see...,” she flips frantically through her holographic spreadsheets, “...three spires on the Southeastern nave, colonnades 5 through 13, and… wow, the Basin of a Thousand Pinnacles!” She begins to clap rapidly. The hall stays decidedly quiet. The monk standing closest to her taps her impatiently on the elbow and -- predictably -- she jolts like a nervous cat. “Ah, righty, and on that note, Font Bruhltid would like to say a few words. What an honor!”
Through the atrium a quiet buzz of anticipation arose as a heavily obscured figure rose from her seat in the direct centre of the tabernaculum. The only time anyone had glimpsed the Head of the Immaculates had been on Arrival Day, when she had taken a ladle and washed everyone’s hands with a strange solution that made your skin tingle for hours. No one dared to ask why, and like everything within the Basilica’s heavy, meticulously carved walls, you all politely took it as a charming tradition.
Font Bruhltid tilted her old head to and fro until everyone in the room could see that just below the pearly trimming of her veil was a brilliant, disarming grin. As she spoke in the clicking, percussive dialect of the Marlins, The Translator waited patiently by her side until they could repeat her words in clear, unaccented English.
“To our dear friends, the Aces and the Architects, and to all the stars that guided them here: the Confluence extends its thanks. Rejoice, for We have deigned to reinstate the cherished vocational prescription known as the Rites of Reacquaintance, effective 13.4.04 on the 16th hour. All pilots must visit the Basin of a Thousand Pinnacles directly after shift from this evening henceforth, where the Rites will carry out. The Confluence trusts that the Rites will soothe all sores and afflictions, as well as bring harmony to all bonded halves.”
You rack that head of yours for that term, Rites of Reacquaintance. Didn’t it mean...
K I U G A
“Man, but a bath sounds divine. My folks are never gonna believe I landed a job that comes with a full spa package,” says Rashmi, our Ace Supervisor at the head of the crowd.
“I dunno.” Trevor shoots back, a rock’s throw away. “How am I gonna relax naked in a pool with an Arcky? You’ve got Tali, dude, but my guy’s in his 60s and ain’t getting prettier.”
“Grow up, Trev. You don’t gotta scrub him.”
Their loud chatter carries down the lineup as you all file out the assembly, bustling with talk. That’s right, you steel yourself, grow up. As awkward as it could be, it’ll only get worse the more you personally seem weirded out by it. Hell, the kid’ll probably be more scared of seeing you like this than you are, and imagining that made the whole situation sound suddenly more palatable.
Out of nowhere someone punches you hard in the shoulder, and it’s gotta be Ino, of course, the only person who could do that and live. “Well well well well well--!” she sing-songs as she passes you. “Look who’s getting to meet their partner after all!”
You flip her off.
I V A N
There’s no way out of it. Before you can even set out an escape route back to your cozy bunk with that open book awaiting you, Bree starts doing a headcount for attendance like a schoolteacher on a field trip.
“Alrighty team, let’s keep it together. This is an enormous honor, and a great chance as any to show our respect to our wonderful Marlin hosts. That means,” and here she levels a bespectacled glare through our ranks, “no feuds. No desecration of holy ground. And no, I mean absolutely NO canoodling.” Much elbowing and stifled smiles erupt throughout the ranks. “I mean it, folks. We’re already on thin ice with how long this damned project’s dragged on. Everyone wants to go home, I know. So let’s just keep the Font in our good graces and get on with it, okay?”
With sounded agreement you’re all herded out the Hall of Assembly, down the central staircase, turning sharply into a shaft on the right side that led deep into the bowels of the Basilica. You hear the distant echoes of conversation trailing out the shaft turning out towards the left, likely where the Aces went, and wondered to what lengths the Basilica was designed expressly to keep two distinct groups separate from each other. The strange thought doesn’t leave you, not even as you all push past a previously sealed-off curtain of highly insulated PlexiWrap into the newly renovated quarter of the building.
T H E B A S I N O F A T H O U S A N D P I N N A C L E S
The Basin itself was a breathtaking structure, spanning in length similar to the exact, insurmountable distance between the East and West Wings where the workers were housed. It had been hidden away underground, and in its prime would have serviced a hundred Immaculates at a time. The walls glittered with embedded crystalline formations, tended to by the trickling of “star-bleached water” from the open aqueducts in the ceiling that the Confluence so dearly revered. Partitions of stone were snaked through each other to form oblong rooms around each pool, too many to count, and it was then that Kiuga and Ivan realized that they were truly standing in a glorified bathhouse.
And here they were indeed, dressed down to a provided robe of silvery fabric not unlike silk, barefoot and standing with nothing but a pool of about the perfect size for two between them. The pebbled curtains on both end rattle with the exit of the attendants that brought them here.
A glance over.
Combining the files they’d skimmed over and what they’d learned from being tangled in their partner’s brain waves all these months, Kiuga thought they’d knew what to expect: a sickly, quiet young man in his early 20s, a bookish-type like the other handful of Architects they’d glimpsed. This was far from the case. Their eyes scan up, even further up to meet Ivan Chavoshi’s, towering a full head and a half above them. Round around the edges, but solid as the stone walls that kept the storm out. Kiuga’s swagger melts away before doubling back with force.
“Man, you’re a fucking giant,” they laugh.
Ivan isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he starts to untie his robe instead.
From the briefing it was simple what they were meant to do: spend half an hour however they like as long as both were submerged in the pool together. Ivan recalled from his reading that the Rites had served some practical use from its conception, as a way to rinse metallic impurities that could lodge itself in the skin from being outside in Marlinchen’s harsh weather. With the advent of better suits and Self-Ships, he could imagine it was kept more for its social benefits, although it was hard to when his present company stood poised as if ready to flee or fight. Clearly it was up to him to act normal, and so Ivan hangs his robe on the hook by the curtain, places his glasses neatly on the tiled edge of the pool, and sinks in with a heavy sigh. The saline scent of the water was sharp on the nose, but aside from that it was perfectly heated from a deep vent below. Maybe if he pretended he was alone, he’d actually be able to relax.
Kiuga follows suit, taking a seat on the edge and dipping their swarthy legs nettled with black hairs. What a waste of time, they think. The smaller pilot measures the distance between them without looking, a practice they’ve picked up from years of survival at the Academy boys’ locker rooms. Ivan, truthfully, is thrown by Kiuga’s frame as well, so much did they resemble a raggedy grifter than a pilot of any sort of social standing. The two spend the first minute listening to the slow drip of the central funnel-tap shaking ripples into the pool.
“You know, it’s not too bad,” Ivan is the one to break the silence, smiling wryly. “My people, we have something similar to this. We call it a cleansing, too, of sorts.” He remembered the mikveh, that comforting room where his father had led him the year after he’d lost his sister to sickness, and every year after that. Come into the water, his father would say. Here is the place we find meaning.
The tension woven through Ivan’s taut upper back begins to unravel like a sail and he sighs, letting the familiar grainy tones of the memory wash over him. At the fringes enters that intrusive image, his father sitting small under a solitary lamp with his worn hands knotted together, which he swallows back. Even with their eyes trained on every possible spot of the room not occupied by Ivan, Kiuga tightens their grip on the pool’s tiled edged, so overcome are they by a sudden, crippling nostalgia.
“Your people, eh?” Kiuga’s voice finds an edge. “Figured you old-colony folk were too busy doing the Good Work to laze around like this.”
“Better this than an hour in front of a Self-Ship matrix.”
“Okay, no kidding. I see those puzzles in my sleep.” Kiuga stretches out their arms, still sore from labor. “Behind my eyes, on the walls when I’m going to take a piss…sometimes I even think I can read them.”
For a moment, not even the tap disturbs the surface of the pool. High in the spaces between the tall arches of the Basin, the voices of nameless others float together, wavering and seamless.
Ivan blinks, remembering to breathe. “You too?”
A full minute passes before Kiuga blinks back. “Huh?”
“Wait,” Ivan’s heavy grey eyes harden with focus, “give me your hand.”
Kiuga makes a noise of disbelief, instinctively jerking away.
“Mach schnell. Can you trust me for just one second?”
After a staredown they finally offer out their hand, half-tauntingly and half out of genuine curiosity. Ivan reaches out to firmly take hold of their wrist until Kiuga is practically tugged into the water. His hand is warm, even warmer than the water and strangely familiar. After a brief struggle to right themself, Ivan begins to traces his finger slowly over his partner’s submerged palm.
The stark recognition bristles over Kiuga’s skin, the muscles in his arm tensing up as he realizes what Ivan is doing. Or rather, what he is saying. The pattern-puzzles of which they’ve spent countless days, hours, months learning were so ingrained they could ascribe movement and meaning to those squiggles in their sleep. Even if they were just images, a tangle of lines, how far away was that to a language or an exchange of ideas? That mythical “knowing without saying.” Empathy, with a big E.
The star-shaped holes that line the edge of the wall near the ceiling. Do you see them? They are listening, and have been for a while.
Kiuga lights up, grabbing Ivan’s writing hand palm-up and starts furiously jabbing out a response.
WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU SERIOUS I CAN’T BELIEVE WE CAN DO THIS -- !
Ivan shakes his head, looking distraught.
Slow down. I can’t understand you.
A rustle breaks their exchange, and they realize that their two attendants have stepped back into the room. Hurriedly, they separate, causing ripples in the pools.
The two pilots look at each other only once as they silently redress and are ushered out. Everything seemed clearer, and yet, Kiuga and Ivan left more frustrated than they’d ever been before.
Casper Pham is a 2D concept artist who lives halfway in the US and halfway in Vietnam, and a senior soon to graduate in the Spring of 2020.
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