In The Shadow Of The Sun


avi_icon.gif badrani_icon.gif dajan_icon.gif devon5_icon.gif emily2_icon.gif etana_icon.gif huruma_icon.gif juwariya_icon.gif mihaja_icon.gif noah_icon.gif usutu_icon.gif

Scene Title In The Shadow Of The Sun
Synopsis SESA's envoy to Madagascar encounter the entire Dunsimi clan.
Date February 12, 2021—February 15, 2021

The capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, is nothing like the stories from Operation Apollo’s Arrow. The war-torn nation of Madagascar is a thing that exists only in history books and the memories of its residents. While the wounds have healed, the scars themselves have been made into something beautiful. Madagascar is one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world and it shows in the cityscape seen out armor-plated windows on the journey.

Dajan Dunsimi does not live in the heart of the capital, but the trip from the airport affords a great view of it. Bustling airports, prolific public transportation, relatively clear roads free of traffic congestion, people on bicycles and bicycle-pulled carts. Electric cars are the predominance of vehicle traffic on the island, the majority being Yamagato Industries sleek and retro-looking models, the same as seen in the Safe Zone.

The further the travel gets from the heart of Antananarivo the older the architecture becomes. Classical Spanish and French architecture abuts more modern structures interspersed with parks and green technology designed to blend into the landscape, like algae producing biofuel production towers made from transparent piping that reaches up into the sky like branches of an elaborately woven wicker tree forged of glass.

The Dunsimi Residence lies on the far northern end of Antananarivo, and by the time it comes into view, Avi Epstein is sitting forward in his seat, sliding his sunglasses off his face in disbelief.

“Well,” Avi mumbles.

“Somebody’s doing ok.”

Dunsimi Estate
Andranomalaza, Antananarivo

February 12th
4:03 pm

The Dunsimi family home looks like something out of the pre-war Silicon Valley in California. The sleek mansion is set into the forested hillside, composed of whitewashed exterior, crisp glass walls, and an intersection of natural greenery and exposed wood. The perimeter fence around the estate parts when the SUV approaches, providing for a full view of the estate grounds before the vehicle comes to a stop in a covered carport.

As the SUV comes to a stop its doors slowly hiss open on the driver’s accord, and Dajan steps out to escort his guests. Dajan and his driver take the majority of the bags, leaving Huruma to take her own. “Come on, let me give you a quick tour before I show you to your rooms.”

From the car port, Dajan leads his guests into the spacious family room where a curved flat-screen television is playing a live football game at the Estadio Florencio Solá in Buenos Aires. There is a wheezy laugh from a man sitting on the couch, followed by a fist thrown up in the air as Benfield scores a goal.

“Hey, sokatra1, we have guests.” Dajan says with a crooked smile. Immediately, Avi’s back stiffens and his eyes widen like he’s seen a fucking ghost.

The bald, bearded man that rises up from the couch turns around with the biggest, brightest smile. The River Styx t-shirt he wears looks a little faded, but well-loved. “Why hello there, Sunglasses Man.” Dajan’s houseguest says with a Cheshire smile.

Usutu,” Avi spits out, staring wide-eyed at the prophet painter.

“Ah, I see you brought your daughter and her soldier-love.” Usutu says as if he knows Emily. “And the Bear’s father,” he says with a nod to Noah, “and of course you.” He continues, stepping over to give Huruma a hug.

Dajan breathes in a deep, patient breath and makes introductions. “Everyone, this is Usutu, a family friend. He showed up the day before you arrived, presumably because he knew you were coming,” Dajan says with a side-eye to Usutu.

Someone who knows things they shouldn't? Emily gives Dajan a glance before looking back to Usutu. Is he a family friend the same how they are, even though they're here for a different reason entirely?

Or is he just like Eve, popping up unexpectedly for his own reasons, his own whims, and everyone else is just lucky enough to be along for the ride.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she says easily, even if it's unsmiling. A thread of sincerity finds its way into her voice unexpectedly. "If only the familiarity were mutual."

There is a subtle change in Huruma when they arrive, something calmer despite the stressors of the talk while in the car. Travelling lighter than the others, Huruma is comfortable enough to simply leave her things in the foyer, trailing after her 'guests' with a brief unfocusing that tells of her surveying the property with the languoring reach of her ability.

Huruma already wears a closed smile in the moments prior to 'Sunglasses Man', as much entertained by Avi's response as she is by the painter's mannerisms.

"Of course me," Huruma echoes under her breath, returning the hug with a one-armed greeting of her own. She still has one hand companionably at his shoulder when Emily does her scrutinizing, neutral as it is.

Perhaps it is the nature of things, or the deliberate words, but whatever the case— it is enough for the empath to offer a low, "Do not worry, he's not the Eve type. The worst he'll do is bet your wallet clean." Huruma's hand falls away only to lightly slap her knuckles against Usutu's arm, smile with a bit of tooth.

“Devon,” is what the younger Hound supplies from where he stands near the end of the procession. A faint, crooked grin tugs at his mouth for the various monikers Usutu bestows on everyone. Sunglasses Man is likely to be brought up needle Avi at the best times when they’re back home. He makes the offer, too, despite the likelihood that the painter already knows who he is. It’s a politeness that’s followed up with a motion and supplemental, “And this is Emily.” The rest of their party goes unintroduced, since it’s more obvious that Usutu already knows them. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Usutu, you’re being distracting.” Dajan says with a swat at the old man’s back, Usutu shoots Dajan a look over his shoulder and feigns great injury, holding his back and hobbling over to the couch—one he proceeds to do a somersault over before landing back in his seat in front of the game.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Songbird,” Usutu says with a glance over his shoulder to Emily. “We’ll talk later.” He adds with a flash of a smile, turning his focus back to the television. Nothing about that makes Avi comfortable. It makes him very, very uncomfortable.

“He’s harmless,” Dajan echoes Huruma’s sentiments with a smile. Avi’s grumble implies otherwise. “Come, my sister and her wife will not be here until dinner. But I will give you the tour, and you all some time to rest and clean up before dinner.”

Usutu side-eyes Dajan at the mention of dinner, but says nothing. He is inviting himself. Dajan knows better than to fight that.

Bebe!” Shouts the voice of a young man from the kitchen. A wiry, tall teenager in a brightly colored football jersey and athleisure wear comes around the corner with the biggest smile his face could possibly contain. Avi looks confused by the young man’s presence, and Noah looks to him for context and comes back wanting.

The young man rushes to Huruma, practically tackling her with arms wound around her neck. “Mijanona mandritra ny herinandro,2 he excitedly demands. “Azafady, manana lalao baolina kitra ho avy aho!3.

Dajan smiles, looking to Avi and Noah. “This is my son,” he says with pride, then looks to Emily and Devon. “Badrani.”

Huruma’s grandson.

Emily's eyes follow Usutu's movement even after he's stilled again back toward the television. Her discomfort at his seeming to know something else he shouldn't is a more closely-concealed thing.

Badrani's romping entrance is turned to, regarded with a thin smile. She looks up to Dajan to acknowledge what he's said, but doesn't move to engage with the young man even tangentially. "I'm sure we'll catch up more at dinner. Maybe it's best we find our rooms for now, give you all some family time."

Note to self: Emily gets a chaperone around Usutu, if only to soothe Avi's rankled reaction to the promise of another conversation. It will happen regardless. Apparently.

Despite fully knowing what's coming around the bend, Huruma puts on the airs of someone with the wind getting knocked out of them— that exaggerated grunt, the huff of a small laugh as she snakes her arms around Badrani's skinny frame to squeeze him close.

"Aie, lasa lehibe loatra ianao!"[[Malagasy: You're getting too big!]] She leans away, eyes gleaming as she sounds out what seems a complaint through her smile— also exaggerated, pointed in its ribbing even through language barriers. "Tsy ho ela dia handondona ahy ianao…"[[Malagasy: Soon you will knock me down…]]

"Stop growing." Huruma releases her grandson only to press her hands against either side of his face with her simple demand. She makes no promises about games, but he already knows she'll try.

"Ny kintano, these are my guests." A step aside gives Badrani a moment to take stock of them, but not enough time spared for introductions. Perhaps letting anyone make their own if they desire to; otherwise, there will be time enough to do just that later on. The flight was quite long.

As if sharing similar thoughts with Huruma, Devon casually moves closer to Emily’s side. He leans in to speak quietly, without looking at anyone specific; but whatever thoughts he’d intended to share hang unspoken when another member of the household makes an appearance. His eyes follow Badrani, amusement showing when the kid trounces Huruma.

“I think the grand tour can wait,” he asides quietly, in sudden agreement with Emily’s suggestion. “We’d be better guests after getting settled in and washed up?” Dev looks at Dajan, brows ticking up slightly. “Maybe before supper? I bet the grounds’re amazing at sunset. And then we’ll be refreshed for proper introductions.”

Badrani, easing out of his grandmother’s embrace, offers a bright smile to the guests. “Cool sunglasses,” he says to Avi, who looks like the kid just blew an airhorn in his face. Avi looks to Huruma, helplessly, then to Badrani and stumbles over himself.

“Uh, yeah—thanks.” Avi says in a murmur, then looks at Dajan for help. “Is it—are we upstairs? Should I?” Please get me out of here.

“Come on, Sunglasses Man,” Dajan says with a sharkish smile, “I’ll show you all to your rooms. Mama, your room’s right where you left it.” He adds with a grin.

Though the circumstances of this arrival could be better, to Dajan, he would never turn down an opportunity to enjoy the company of others. In that way, he was just like his mother.

One Hour Later

An hour of rest, a hot shower, and a fresh change of clothes can do a lot for a weary traveler. Though the travelers to Madagascar could do with about six or seven more hours of rest, they’ll have to wait for that. Business was impending.

Dinner is served at the Dunsimi Residence on an outdoor deck in view of a terraced pool and a broad lake beyond the estate grounds. The wood table is fashioned from a vertical slice of a single tree, polished to a glossy shine. A rectangular fire pit is set in the middle of the enormous table, framed by low metal mesh walls. The heat and flame is mostly decorative, for the Malagasy summer does more than enough to keep the evening air warm.

There is no separation of business and family at dinner. Noah Bennet sits beside Badrani, and the current houseguest Usutu rubs elbows with Dajan and a reluctant Avi. Dajan, it seems, is the cook around the house. Or at least was one of them tonight. The table is set with a spread that is as colorful as it is aromatic.

There are four bowls of different kinds of rice set out around the table, and a sort of pot luck style arrangement of glazed clay bowls and wood serving platters of roasted zebu beef skewers, a fish dish that Dajan identified as tilapia served in a tomato sauce with watercress, onions, garlic, ginger, and a number of spices. Several other vegetarian dishes are laid out on Usutu’s end of the table, and he seems to be exclusively partaking of them.

There is no delay in getting dinner started, as soon as the first plate is on the table people are eating. But there are also guests that have only just arrived.

Coming through the glass doors from the house out onto the expansive deck are a pair of stunning women, familiar only to Huruma. Dajan hears the sound of their arrival and turns, pointing toward them with a fond smile.

“Friends,” Dajan says with a wag of his fingers toward them, “this is my sister Juwariya and her wife Mihaja. Mihaja is the CEO of Celerity Technologies,” Dajan says with a pointed look to Avi and Noah, the latter of whom looks up from his meal with a practiced smile.

But the third guest of the night is one not even Dajan was expecting. He stands when she comes last through the door, and everyone at the table who recognizes her—even Usutu—suddenly adopts more proper manners.

She is old, her coarse gray hair worn large and high atop her head and she emerges from the house draped in a shawl of black fur and a billowing charcoal dress. Dajan looks at Huruma, then back to this elderly woman who carries herself as if she were a queen.

Bebe. Inona no ataonao aty?4 Dajan asks her in surprise while Juwariya just smirks.

“English in front of your guests,” she says with a smirk that matches Juwariya’s. “Since Dajan forgot his manners at the sight of my bony old ass,” she says with a breathy laugh, “I’ll introduce myself. I’m Etana, Huruma’s grandmother. It’s nice to meet you all in person.”

Noah looks around the table, then over to Avi. Neither man seems to be sure what to make of her.

Some family dynamics don't change across cultures, across language, it'd seem. Emily presses a breath of laughter out through her nose, the back of her hand brought to her mouth so she can finish her current bite politely before she smiles, hand dropping back to her plate. "It's an honor to get to know so much of Huruma's family. She's been very good to us, so it's wonderful to get to meet the other people important to her."

After that, she lifts her eyes to Juwariya and Mihaja next, but she keeps her seat. It's an ingrained habit. "I'm Emily. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Devon is just as amused by the family’s sudden procurement of manners as he was for the informalities at the start of the meal. It reminds him a little bit of dinners in the brick front house before the war, helping yourself to food and no need to worry about rank or privilege. Even unexpected guests were welcomed in with little fanfare. So when the family — as well as Noah and Avi — reacts to the apparent matriarch’s arrival behind the anticipated Juwariya and Mihaja, he can't quite smother the grin or interest.

“I'm Devon,” he follows behind Emily’s introduction. In spite of his grin, he carries a politeness to posture and tone that’s more tribal than diplomatic. He stands as he introduces himself, and makes an offering of his chair to Etana, even sliding his dish closer to Emily in case a fresh one is wanted. Guest or no, he's been welcomed into the home and to the table, he can assimilate in his own way.

"…should know better than to be surprised." Huruma is seated at the end of one side of the table, a small smile on her lips for Dajan, eyes glinting when they move from her son to where Emily and Devon both seem to be at least inwardly tickled by all of it. That smirk seems to have hopped right on down the bloodline. Between this and families interacting, some things really don't change. One brow lifts and Huruma picks up the glass of water next to her, "I did tell her when we landed." Sip. "Not that she needed it."

"You know how she loves to make an entrance, besides…" Devon's offer to find the elderly woman a seat is not at all unexpected, and a part of Huruma is already debating over if Emily is going to find a kindred mouth spirit. Despite having heard Etana's correction for Dajan's speech(always contrary), Huruma gives her grandmother an invisible embrace of warmth, mind to mind.

"Nafurahi kukuona pia, Bibi…"5 For her daughter and her wife, a blown kiss on two fingers from the far end of the table.

“I am a dramatic old woman and you’ll let me have that,” Etana says with an actual cackle as she makes her way to the table, settling into the offered seat beside Huruma. Etana places an arm around her granddaughter’s shoulder and a kiss to her temple, then looks over at Dajan. “Go get the nice bottle of wine, would you?”

“I’ll get it!” Badrani interjects, shimmering like a reflection in a window before disappearing from his seat and reappearing inside the house on the other side of the glass. Etana lets out a whooping laugh and smiles.

“That boy’s gonna be the death of you,” she says with a smile to Dajan, who just shakes his head and laughs.

Juwariya and Mihaja make sure to seat themselves in good conversational range to the houseguests, knowing full well why this family meeting was arranged. “Mr. Epstein,” Juwariya says with a look across the table to him. “I never did get to thank you.”

Avi looks suspiciously over at Juwariya. “For… what, exactly?” He asks, poking at his salad. In the interim Badrani manifests in a reflection of light off of a wine glass, holding a bottle in his hand and a corkscrew. Dajan relieves him of it and begins unscrewing the bottle.

“I was still at the Mount Moriah monastery when the war broke out in the US,” Juwariya explains, looking between Huruma and Avi for recognition. “Ferrymen came, when things got their worst, helped us get out of the country. Mr. Salucci said that the order to clear the monastery came from you.”

Avi looks down at his plate, moving his salad around with his fork. “Oh.” He isn’t sure how to process the genuine praise. Huruma feels the tiny twinge of self-doubt and panic. But he manages through it on his own this time. “That was Gitelman, mostly.” He dismisses his involvement, and now Huruma feels the guilt. Madagascar is nothing but guilt to Avi. “But, you know, I’m glad you made it out.”

“There were a great number of evacuations during that time,” Noah chimes in, drawing the focus off of Avi. “I’m glad you and the rest of the people of Mount Moriah were able to get to safety. I’d always wondered what happened to Mr. Salucci.”

“I’m sure he’s around, somewhere.” Juwariya says with a demure tone that implies she knows, but isn’t telling. “I suppose you are also owed thanks, Mr. Bennet. The Ferrymen was partly your idea, after all.”

Noah shrugs, dismissively. “Perhaps we can turn that appreciation into a favor.” He says with an awkward smile. “Not to cut straight to business.”

Etana bursts out with laughter, shaking her head. “This one, oh you are a charming devil aren’t you? That big smile and those kind eyes.” She lifts her wine glass up and makes a small toast gesture to Noah, then takes a sip. Noah, in Etana’s presence, is taken aback.

“Would anyone else like a glass?” Dajan asks, holding the bottle of white wine up.

Avi raises a hand, but it’s with his palm out. “No thanks.”

Blink, and you'd miss it. But Emily doesn't. And she suddenly is clearing her throat, trying to fix whatever's threatened to become lodged there. Her father passed up a drink?

"I'll have some, please," she indicates once she's settled again. Shifting her weight in the seat, her shoulders settle, posture lifting. She follows the line of sight between Juwariya and Noah, listening intently for how he'll begin the discussion.

With seats figured out and food to return to, Devon sinks into his place again. He picks at his food, more interested in following the conversation, but not so distracted that he isn't also enjoying the meal. A quick nod and a murmured, “Yes, thank you,” is directed at Dajan’s offer of wine.

Badrani's popping back and forth is given a breathy laugh, though Juwariya's engagement with Avi is what draws more of Huruma's attention. She doesn't create a buffer between the encounter with her ability, instead set on allowing him the full feel of it. Because in her opinion… he needs to; thankfully he does seem able to navigate it enough to move on. Huruma gives her daughter a tight little smile, silent but of course approving. Something thankful too, perhaps. Epstein's response to Dajan is followed by a tiny roll of eyes, and Huruma's humor remains. Avi with the cheek. Sigh. "Glass, not bottle."

"And don't let him fool you." Huruma brushes the back of her hand against her grandmother's arm as she toasts to Noah's …Noahness. "The attitude waiting there in the back runs in the family." Claire did learn from it, like it or not.

Dajan, graceful host that he is, walks around the table and pours half glasses for the guests at the table who requested one, and it finishes off the bottle. “As much as I want this to just be a good night for food and drink,” he says as he returns to his seat, “I know that sometimes it’s best to get business out of the way first.” He looks over to his sister, knowingly.

“Dajan told me that there was something of a professional reason so many people from the States had come to Madagascar,” Juwariya says with a raise of one brow, “but he didn’t have any more details than that.” And I pressed him for them, her tone all but says.

“It’s a sensitive topic,” Noah is quick to say at the start, “in a classified nature. But suffice to say, the United States Government is actually interested in partnering with Celerity Technologies on a number of initiatives.”

Mihaja momentarily tenses when her company is brought up. She looks at Avi, then Noah. “We don’t build weapons.”

“I’m not here in an official capacity, or with the government anymore,” Avi says with a spread of his hands, “I’m just here to—chaperone.” He regrets the words the moment they leave his mouth.

“Commander Epstein is accurately representing the facts,” Noah says calmly, “we’re not interested in weapons. Our SLC-Expressive Services Agency is interested in developing specialized detection equipment.”

Mihaja’s eyes narrow briefly, tension in her jaw. The expression is reflected in Juwariya’s eyes, though more as concern. She reaches out and puts a hand on Mihaja’s hand, reassuring. “Mama would not work for bad men,” Juwariya says softly to Mihaja, who does not look away from Avi.

“Obviously, we can’t disclose the nature of the detection technology over dinner,” Noah says with a look to Emily and Devon, as if saying that as a reminder for the more junior people in the room, before returning his focus to Juwariya and Mihaja. “We just wanted to open a line of communication.”

“You could have sent an email.” Mihaja replies, one corner of her mouth twitching into a tense near-sneer.

By now Huruma can taste the bouquet of complicated emotions swirling around the table. From Mihaja, distrust and resentment; it would seem her opinion of the United States has not improved at all over the years and may have in fact worsened since she and Huruma last met. No doubt the attempt on her and Dajan’s life by Adam had some include on that.

Juwariya is less distrustful, and Noah’s presence is anchoring her in support. But Huruma also knows that Mihaja is the more forceful of the two, and Juwariya rarely contradicts her in public. Though Huruma suspects in private she is a mediating force. Just one that never openly undercuts her wife’s authority and dignity.

Dajan is impartial, and Huruma can tell he just wants this dinner to go smoothly.

Etana is amused, as is par for course with her. She doesn’t seem concerned, so much as she is interested and entertained. There’s a confidence Huruma feels as well as a mutual respect for her children and their varied perspectives.

Usutu might as well be a mirror of Etana, he’s just here for the show too.

But what troubles Huruma is something new. A rotten egg scent memory of an emotion burned in the back of her mind, a very specific emotion of resentment and distrust commingled with something more putrid: a low, simmering hate. She sensed it before, in Adam Monroe. But here, now?

It’s coming from Badrani.

Emily's eyes haven't left Mihaja since she first heard the prickling of the air around her. She listens, watches, her gaze softening in sympathy over the adamancy she'd not be working on weapons before a thoughtful ice begins to crystallize in her blues.

"Ma'am," she interjects quietly, but in a way that carries for its firmness. "What we've come hoping to discuss with you has nothing to do with weapons, and nothing to do with repeating the mistakes our country has made previously— both domestically and abroad."

Such as here.

"I sympathize entirely that when speaking in vagueries on the topic, it's hard not to jump to conclusions. But that is precisely why this isn't email material. Why SESA was hoping to connect with you directly." Emily pauses to let one hand leave the table and come to rest in her lap, a tight ball in contrast with the calm, soothing nature of her voice. "To speak with you at length, and once you have the information, let you make your decision then. What you have in your hands is the opportunity for the US to prove it is better than the soured memories many have of it. I hope, sincerely, that we could talk long enough to prove that."

She looks only for a moment to Juwariya like to include her in that offer, and then returns her gaze to Mihaja, feeling the stubbornly-closed flower of sixth sense in her mind begin to partly unfurl at her easing.

Devon shares the look with Noah, one brow raising in question of the implied look. Has something already been said that shouldn't have? Distracted, he offers Dajan a nod in thanks, then angles a glance to Avi even though the major is just a chaperone. That claim earns both brows lifting, but nothing verbal to draw attention to it.

“It's worth mentioning that emails can be hacked,” Devon adds to Emily’s statement, with a glance to her. “Word inference can be lost in text, and phones can be tapped.” He’s sure Mihaja and Juwariya likely know this already, but hopefully saying it aloud gives support to Emily — and everyone from the states — in this.

Lifting his glass to take a swallow now that he's spoken, Dev takes a look down the table to get a read on the other faces. Particularly those in the eldest category.

As Noah pitches, Huruma seems to be clearly on the line of facilitating rather than cooperating with him; this is measured in the scrutiny he gets from the narrow of her eyes between sips of wine, listening as he goes on.

It isn't Noah that her silence falls on last, however. Of course it isn't. The absorption of those at the table comes at the cost of knowing precisely what stings. Long fingers remain wound light around her glass despite it having found a seat on the table again. Emily has her trust for the time being, and so the young woman's voice is distant as the inner one of her grandson comes to her, limping and bitter. Huruma doesn't choose to look to him immediately. She knows this taste, and this feeling, both in others and from herself— for decades now.

"Devon is correct in this." Huruma finally breaks her silence, mouth thinning. "Old-fashioned is in vogue, for these things." Technopaths, to boot. No mention of opinion on the matter, but of course she must have them. Thing is, it's not her floor just yet.

"Badrani," Voice deliberately light, Huruma turns her head to the boy near her, gaze heavy and as knowing as he knows her to be.

These years are already hard on a teen, and with the kind of world he grew up in, the turmoil is simply worse. She is intimately familiar with that.

Huruma's question is likened to an extension of her hand, rather than something scornful. He's never had reason to think she would steer him wrong. He is the star in her eye, and this family tends towards the trail of honesty. "What's on your mind, love?"

Badrani pushes it down. “Nothing,” is said in defense. But she can still feel the tumult boiling inside of him. It’s not directly just at Avi, but most of the foreigners at the table, with Mihaja an exception. He seems embarrassed by his own anger, but also guilty. Huruma is right, the world is hard on teenagers.

Emily finds herself in an empathic connection of her own, though, synchronizing her feelings with those of Mihaja, and feeling the gut-twisting worry and abundant caution come through with the clarity of an airhorn. There’s so much responsibility, so many technological developments that she fears sharing with Americans, worry about blood on her hands and becoming the next Hector Steel.

Yet the panic behind Mihaja’s eyes remains just that.

“It’s hard to have a conversation about specific intent without knowing the specifics.” Mihaja challenges Noah, and Bennet is eager to bear the brunt of the conversation so Emily can strike at the more critical parts, as she has already.

“SESA is coordinating with the Department of the Exterior, an agency that researches space weather and other global phenomenon, on a program codenamed Broken Watch.” Noah begins to explain, slowly spreading his hands as he does. “There’ve been a number of anomalous solar events over the last few years, some of which have had deleterious effects on Expressive people. I’m sure you’re well-aware of the effect some levels of solar radiation can have.”

Mihaja looks at Juwariya, then back to Noah, expectantly. Dajan is quiet in all of this, hands folded in his lap, watching carefully.

“We’re looking to develop a sensor technology that can detect specific subtle quantum vibrations pertaining to this phenomenon. I’d explain it better but, unfortunately, I’m not much of an egghead.” Noah says with a pearly white smile.

Avi withholds his comment, instead focusing on eating.

“We have no technology like that in development,” Mihaja says with a crease of her brows.

“Well, we’ve already started work. But from what I gather it’s rather cumbersome and, frankly, could use some work.” Noah explains with a laugh. “Now, we’re just looking to gauge interest here. See if you’re willing to talk to the people who know how to explain all of this better. But, given everything this country’s been through and—as Devon said, security concerns taken into account—we wanted to make this a personal trip.”

“This is that important to you?” Mihaja asks, and it is a question offered more widely to the table at large.

Emily is almost certain Noah is playing the airhead for the sake of not overspeaking at dinner as he expertly dances closer to exactly what SESA is after while still skirting the true core of the topic. She's not sure a skill like that is something she can learn— it's something that needs refined, and he's got decades of experience up on her in playing it cool in these situations.

So she meets Mihaja's eyes once more, instead confirming, "It is. It's important to SESA to have the best minds on the topic as much as it is to engage in lasting partnerships. Building the foundation for a better future isn't going to come entirely from the rubble we have to work with, to be blunt." There's no smile for that. "Walling ourselves off isn't going to do us, or any of the other countries embracing their SLC-E any favors. Finding ways to keep positive forward progress rolling is imperative, at this point."

"There's too many other places and people trying to keep that ball from rolling, and it's going to take fighting against them to make a difference," Emily submits in a softer voice. "Partnership with foreign leadership is critical to that— both diplomatically and in the private sector."

She's not certain she's hit the right notes to assuage Mihaja's fears. The most she can do is hope. Picking up her fork again, she restates, "The US is dedicated to doing better, Mrs. Naika. And better won't happen without input."

Devon’s eyes settle on Badrani. He'd missed the question that prompted the response, but the tone is one he recognizes. How many times has he responded similarly, especially in his own youth. Sympathy isn't offered in that look, but understanding is. It wasn't very long ago when he himself was angry at every outsider and the world.

His attention on the boy lasts only a few seconds, perhaps just long enough to be noticed, maybe even shared. Then he looks away as though it had never happened. Seamlessly, he returns his attention to the trading of words between Emily and Mihaja and their respective partners.

Devon sits back in his chair while he listens, collecting his glass once again. The sipping he takes is less for the drink itself, and more for the social construct it is. It's a thing to do while tracking the conversation, weighing words against tone and body language.

Nothing. But of course, nothing. Still, Huruma gave the opportunity for him to give his thoughts; whatever they are, he'll not share with the rest. Perhaps he might later, with her, especially knowing that she must know he's lying about there being Nothing.

Huruma does not allow her physical attention to linger long on her grandson; though she reads him as she does anyone, her eyes move away as Emily answers Mihaja's concerns, supplying Noah's information with her own.

"If I might," Noah is the one to have Huruma's eye, a silent deterrent in her stare before she sighs through her nose and looks to Mihaja, expression pensieve. "You know that I respect you far too much to try and pull the wool over your eyes." Echoing a further comment from Riya; Huruma would not be here in this capacity if she did not think it prudent. "The project is definitely under development, but as Mr. Bennet has implied, it is not far. This isn't a GPS, or an isotope," Mister Bennet receives a blink-and-miss-it pinning of the empath's eyes in the supper lighting. Her voice is low, though neutral, carrying a helpful clarity with its pace.

"Not unlike a personal metal detector, of a kind, for a peculiar sort of…" Huruma's tongue runs over the edge of her teeth, and she decides to call a horse a horse, with the twinge of a smile. "Naturally occurring resonance. Difficult to detect and define, but not impossible, or so I've come to understand. As a dog might hear what we don't." She could go on with comparisons, but by and large this collaboration is something to sow and water, and they all seem to recognize that.

“Wasn’t it you who developed the bloodhounds of your war?” Juwariya asks of Bennet. Noah tenses with a brief look to Huruma, then seizes on the opportunity to play a sharper card.

But then—Avi chimes in.

“We lined them all up against a wall and had them shot.” He says with as much diplomacy as a fucking bulldozer. Noah nearly chokes on his wine, looking to Avi with wide eyes. Juwariya and Mihaja both stare at Avi in silence.

“Look, I get your concern, but the US doesn’t have a good fucking history of putting up with this shit anymore. The people who weaponized that tech, I spent five fucking years of my life hunting down. Fuck, I’m still smoking out their little fucking fox holes they’re living in. I don’t know if you were keeping score at the Albany trials, but most of them have their legs kicking in the goddamn wind.”

“Sure, we fuck up.” Avi says with a spread of his hands. “But at least we fuck up in novel and new ways. Every time those assholes pop their heads up we step on the goddamn necks. Liberty Island, Fort Irwin, elections. This isn’t about becoming Britain.”

Mihaja and Juwariya are silent for a time, the latter of whom finishes half her wine glass in a single go.

“What I think Commander Epstein is trying to say,” Noah awkwardly tries to mediate, “is that this isn’t about controlling people. It’s about scientific discovery and an area of concern that is, at the moment, highly classified. But, if you were willing to discuss this further we could get you clearance to more fully understand.”

“He’s talking about the Wounds of Zanahary.” Usutu chimes in, and Dajan gives Usutu a look that just about knocks him out of his chair. Huruma feels a sudden spike of concern in the back of her son’s psyche; secrecy and fear.

Emily is spared the need to try to intervene with a soft touch in the conversation once more when Avi Epstein comes swinging in with all the grace of a wrecking ball. He's effective with that opening salvo. It brings his daughter to look at him for the first time in hours, and not with the startle to it that Noah does.

She can appreciate that he, uniquely, is able to bring a certain piece of honesty to the table, and he's done just that right when it was needed.

Looking away when he finishes speaking, she goes for her own glass of wine to take a drink. Emily tips it back slowly, trying to telegraph she's just clearing her palette rather than trying to gain any patience from it. As such, her glass pauses when Usutu speaks, bringing up a phrase she's never heard before.

She takes her cue from Noah's expression, and when it seems he doesn't know anything about what's being said, but it causes Dajan and the rest of the people from here to look taken aback. Something local, then.

In fact she notes that Etana's the only one aside from the speaker who doesn't look taken aback in some way.

"Huruma?" Emily asks deferentially, turning to her. She recognizes she's way out of her league here.

Devon pauses, halfway to a sip from his glass, when Avi interjects with a colorful accounting of the past. His eyes angle to the Major, one brow raising slowly as the man keeps right on talking. On one hand, it might be good and useful for the uncensored version of events to be laid out for their hosts. On the other…

He completes that sip from his glass while slanting a look to Noah first, then the Dunsimi family second. The shock and discomfort might be expected. At least no one seems particularly repulsed.

Setting his glass down on the table, Devon begins leaning toward Emily, likely with the intent of saying something to her. He doesn't get that far though, halting when Usutu interjects and changes the entire mood of the table. He sits back slowly, straightening and looking between Avi and Usutu, murmuring in askance, “Wounds of Zanahary?”

There are times when Avi Epstein's methodology doesn't exactly fall in line with whatever she's trying to do.

This time, however, Huruma feels a warm wash of gratitude for his ability to slice off the fat, so to speak; her expression is somewhat difficult to read, all the same, buffered still behind eating her supper, watchful.

And just as Avi cut in, so does Usutu. It's different this time, though. Instead of emotions coming to attention, they veer in several directions all at once. Huruma's food lingers in her mouth, fork coming to rest on her plate, pupils darkening when she levels a look at her son. The state of every mind at the table stands in stark contrast to minutes before; the empath hadn't been invested in calculating them all. It was merely a collection of auras a moment ago; now, the web has pulled taut and spidery psychic limbs splay out in search of the fly that's gotten stuck.

Context clues give her some indication of where the term was headed; she only knows the name, not the colloquialism. Thing is… it's Usutu, and between him and her grandmother, Huruma tends to tread as if they already know about topics they shouldn't.

Huruma's tongue runs over her teeth as she picks up water rather than wine, soaking her mouth with a deliberate sip.

"Zanahary," She turns her head to Emily, away from Dajan. "is the Sky and the Sun. A soulmaker." When she looks back to Dajan it is with a distinct lividity in face and the depth of her voice, the look hanging between him and Usutu.

"Does he mean the auroral anomalies? Because that will certainly make this an easier exchange."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Dajan shakes his head in response to Huruma’s question. “No. Yes?” He sighs, reaching for his wine. “It is complicated.”

“Not to blow our own horn, but we’re people who’re used to ‘complicated.’” Noah says with a Cheshire smile.

Glancing briefly to Badrani, as if to dismiss him from the table so the adults can talk, Dajan reconsiders and sits forward. “For the last few years there have been a number of… unusual happenings here on Madagascar. The government has kept it a very closely-guarded secret, mostly because we do not know what the cause of them is, or what they are.”

Noah briefly glances to Huruma, seeing her lack of recognition at this, then finds Dajan’s stare again. “At first we thought they were anomalous manifestations, people with uncommon abilities expressing in unusual ways, but… we do not believe this anymore.”

“What’re we talking about here?” Avi asks with a look around the table, brows pinching together in uncertainty. “How anomalous?

“The laws of reality, taking the day off.” Dajan says with a slow spread of his hands, as if lacking a better answer. “The first we discovered was a field near Beloha—far to the south—where gravity ceased to function. Objects would float freely in place, weightless. This was… in January, two years ago. Not long after the auroras started.”

Noah’s expression takes on a subtle shift as he glances down to the table, gears turning behind his eyes.

“Seven more have appeared since then. Some no larger than a broom closet, others the size of a whole city block. One, a place where time flows uneven; sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards. Another where there is simply no sound. Another that in a gap, a space you can see but no one can enter. They step into the edge…” He moves his hands apart, “and they appear instantly on the other side of the area.”

Badrani looks around the room, trying to gauge whether or not the adults are messing with him. But from the serious faces, he can tell that isn’t the case. Curiosity and uncertainty dances across his expression and he hangs on his father’s every word.

“The government men here, they call me for assistance.” Usutu says with a motion of his wine glass to Dajan. “Ask me what I see, what I know. I tell them the world is sick, and they do not like the answer. But I tell it as I see it. Wounds,” he says before taking a sip of his wine, “cause unknown.”

“They are not just here.” Etana says, and this isn’t a surprise to Dajan or Usutu. “I have seen them across the world. When I close my eyes and journey, I see these wounded places. Bright with possibility and turmoil. Cities in deserts where cities should not be, stones floating over canyons, storms churning in vast forests. Your government must know,” she says to Noah. “They are in your country too.”

Noah slides his tongue across his teeth, looking from the table to Dajan and then over to Emily for a moment. “Above my pay grade, it sounds like.” Noah says with a hint of resentment in his voice. “This is the first I’ve heard of anything of the sort. Which means either we don’t know, or more likely, the people with bigger paychecks than mine are looking into it.”

“What’re you doing about them?” Avi asks Dajan; a sensible question.

“There is nothing to do. We cannot stop them, and they are not… hurting anyone.” Dajan says with a helpless shrug.

“Yet.” Avi adds.

“Yes. Yet,” Dajan reluctantly agrees.

“Why is this the first I am hearing of it?” Juwariya asks with visible consternation, sitting forward toward her brother. “You have kept this a secret for two years?

“It is not my call to make,” Dajan says with a hint of exasperation. Huruma has seen this before, them bickering, sibling friction. “I am an officer, not a policy-maker.”

“So you let them dictate what you tell your family about their homeland?” Juwariya rankles, and only when Mihaja places a hand on her arm does she think better of it and suck down her anger.

But then Dajan turns to Usutu. “Why did you think the Americans’ request is related?”

Usutu shrugs, finishing his wine. “I didn’t,” he says in the most frustrating tone possible, “but it sounded good.”

“That’s—” Noah starts, then sighs and takes off his glasses, cleaning the lenses with a pocket square. “Usutu isn’t entirely off the mark. Why we’re here and what might be causing these… disturbances may be related."

Two years ago, Dajan says, and Emily's poker face for all this trends more bewildered. She checks out mentally as she winds back through time, trying to remind herself again she lost nearly a year and take that into account properly. The auroras…

Her eyes close hard, and she takes a drink from her wine before she lifts them again.

"If the world is sick," she ventures calmly with a look to Usutu, "what do you think is the cause? The anomalies in solar activity, or something else?"

We're people who are used to complicated, quite right. It's the first time that Huruma gives a small jerk of her head Noah's way, indicating her agreement while she continues eating. What he said. While Dajan speaks, Huruma does keep a mental eye on Badrani; it may well be a new complicated for him, judging by the apprehension.

It's similarly news to her, at least to this degree. Huruma frowns silently as she listens, one hand which had been idly cradling her glass brought up to drain it, kin to her daughter not long before. Yes, she's probably going to be needing this; a gesture of empty glass and a beckoning hand to Devon signals him to send the open bottle down. Etana's words at her side are given a small look of recognition.

"They do know, bibi. The ones who need to." Which, given circumstances, a well-intended compliment. Needless to say, yes, it'd be above Noah's paygrade. Huruma doesn't temper anyone at the table as tensions bend, though her senses are on their toes. The twins not butting heads would be more worrisome, if she had to say.

Usutu's answer on the nature of relatability causes Huruma, at least, to cough up a laugh, one fist held at her mouth as she clears her throat to the side. What? Of course that's his answer.

"I would venture that they are definitely related, if tangentially." She pats the flat of her chest as her cough falters. Better now. "Symptoms. Like Emily is getting at…"

“Wounds happen because someone makes them,” Usutu says with a whispery certainty in his voice. Etana agrees in a silent nod. “The who? I cannot say,” he adds with a shrug.

“There’s a chance these… phenomenon aren’t caused by the auroral activity,” Noah says with a glance over at Devon and Huruma, “but that the aurora are like… a rash? A symptom.” He echoes Huruma’s choice of wording. “SESA’s research may well give your government insights into what is going on here, and we’re more than willing to cooperate on that…”

“Provided you get what you want.” Juwariya says with a sigh, then blinks a look over at Mihaja.

“It’s obvious this isn’t about, what was it your Company called it?” Mihaja asks Noah, but it’s entirely rhetorical. “Bagging and tagging?” Her expression shows her momentary flash of distaste. “I may have anticipated the worst from you Americans. I concede that.”

Juwariya rests a hand on Mihaja’s arm, squeezing it gently.

“Then, would your company be willing to help us?” Noah asks, looking at Emily and then back to Mihaja.

“With provisions, perhaps. But we will need to see this information.” Mihaja says firmly.

Etana suddenly claps her hands. “Now, can we please eat? I came here for dinner and a show, and I’ve only gotten half of that deal,” she says with a lopsided smile.

Dajan sighs and shakes his head, reaching for bread at the middle of the table. “Yes, we seem to have come to an agreement. Let us… settle talk of business for now. We are among family and new friends, we should treat the night as such.”

With a soft sigh, Avi sinks back into his seat. He looks at Emily, and it’s clear for just a moment that there’s pride in his eyes. If only for a moment.

Even though Emily might not have her answers immediately, what they have here now is the sign that there's allies in asking the questions. That they've proven, as Mihaja put it, to not be out to cause harm. That is the victory they were looking for here, and she knows she played part in it.

She catches Avi's look in her direction, short enough to wonder if it was her imagination, but long enough for the tendrils of her intuition to whisper to her maybe it wasn't.

Her gaze moves on, alights on Badrani instead. "You play football?" she asks of him with quiet and earnest curiosity. "I wasn't able to play any sports when I was younger. That sounds like a lot of fun. Do you play in a League?"

Underneath the table, her hand reaches for Devon's, finding it, holding on tightly to anchor herself to his presence. For all the brave face she puts on, even now, this is still so much for her.

Varsity,” Badradi says with a tilt of his chin up in pride.

Junior Varsity,” Dajan corrects with a crooked smile, “until the fall.” He looks up to Emily with a smile, after the fact. She was the only one to find a way to break through his son’s hardened exterior.

Devon' returns his glass to the table, but his thoughts are somewhere else as he moves. Something in the exchange tugs at a memory — one he shares but never experienced himself - and his gaze goes far away as he analyzes it. A verdant growth of plants in the middle of Antarctica. He recalls hiking in the sub-zero temperatures, the blowing snow and ice… then warmth and the most unusual flowers and plants.

The touch of fingers finding his hand draws him from those faraway thoughts. He blinks at the table, glances at Emily. He gives her hand an encouraging squeeze, before angling a quick look to the others around the table.

Mihaja's sharpness when it comes to the old methods used gives Huruma a small sense of satisfaction; a woman who has done her homework and due diligence, even on so obscure a thing. Her grandmother's sharp clap is an attention grabber, veering her away from any more thoughts on the matter of the show's contents. The only real thoughts left are lingering, a quick study of Avi's pride, of the others' reach for some normalcy at the table.

"How were you so sure you were guaranteed a show?" Huruma asides, brow raised as she passes down the breadbasket to her grandmother. "Are we really all that predictable?"

Oh,” Etana says with a broad smile, reaching for her glass of wine. “Me?” He laughs, shaking her head at Huruma, then lifts her glass. “Where you go, my dear, there is always a show to be seen.”

As the tone of the room relaxes, Avi levels a look across the table at Emily, and a smile slowly creeps across his lips. He gives her a silent nod of recognition, then turns his attention out toward the horizon and away from the tinier dramas playing out under a low-hanging sun. In the moment, Madagascar looked nothing like the nightmare he remembered it to be. Each time he’s come back, it’s been a little easier, and the shadows…

…not quite as long.

Three Days Later

Manjakaray, Antananarivo

10:27 pm

An empty stretch of street in lower Manjakaray is illuminated by a flickering streetlight. Rows of bodega storefronts are closed with steel shutters, while the glass display windows of an electronics store showcases flatscreen televisions showing muted news broadcasts.

The street light flickers and a boy’s reflection appears in the store window a split second before the boy it is reflecting steps into being. Badrani Dunsimi looks over his shoulder down the street, then back up in the other direction toward an unlit alley. Plugging his wireless earbuds in, he sets out with long-legged strides.

They say that life is always easier,

After you let yourself come undone.

They say they'll give you whatever you want,

And I'll be waiting in the shadow of the Sun.

Badrani jogs into the alley, sneakers scuffing against the asphalt as he moves. The side entrances to numerous businesses line the walls, each one painted a drab shade of blue. Even as he steps into the dark and out of sight, Badrani still looks over his shoulder, as if unable to shake the feeling he is being followed or watched.

Seizing time where no one's been before,

Close the curtains. What you're waiting for?

And I'll be keeping secrets 'til I'm in the ground.

One of the blue doors bears a single piece of graffiti, a half-torn sticker showing a sun in black on a field of white. Badrani knocks on the door and bounces up and down on his heels, looking up with wide eyes when a lanky Malagasy man in an olive-drab jacket answers the door. He greets Badrani with a nod, letting the teen slip past while watching the alley behind him before shutting the door.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the Sun,

Where I belong there's something coming on.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the sun,

Badrani moves through the back of a restaurant after-hours, while line cooks wrapping up a double shift are finishing cleaning the kitchen. He snags some leftover fries from a plate on the way through, stuffing them in his mouth until he reaches another door, navigating through it and down rickety wood stairs into a dank basement.

Oh, and I need you.

Badrani glances over his shoulder again, continuing toward the feeling of loud bass beating through a nearby door. His softer, more melodic music nearly drowns the conflicting sounds out.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the sun,

Where I belong there's something coming on.

No more waiting, times are changing

And there's something coming on.

On the other side of the door, Badrani steps into a wall of smoke. Malagasy men and women stand around casino tables. Hard men play cards under jaundiced light, stacks of money trade hands. Badrani shifts his backpack over his shoulder and checks over it as he does, weaving a familiar path between the tables until he reaches a door at the back of the casino, guarded by a bald Syrian man in tactical gear.

Changing colours makes you waste away,

Just paint your eyes with a vivid mind.

Now we're seeing what's behind the light,

And I'll be waiting in the shadow of the Sun.

Badrani pauses, staring up at the unfamiliar man with wide eyes, then reaches down and rolls up the sleeve of his t-shirt, showing a tattoo on his bicep to the Syrian man, who looks at it with deep scrutiny a moment before stepping aside and opening the door. Badrani exhales a sharp sigh of relief, then slips past the guard into the red-lit parlor on the other side.

Finding treasures that's been on demise,

Building mountains in disguise.

And I'll be keeping secrets 'til I'm in the ground.

There are a few women back here in slinky dressed that glitter like diamonds and fish scales, laughing, drinking, smiling. But the man waiting at the plush booth for Badrani meets his gaze from across the room with piercing affect. They know each other. He beckons Badrani over with a wide, bright smile.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the Sun,

Where I belong there's something coming on.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the Sun,

Oh, and I need you.

Badrani slides his backpack off his shoulders and carries it over across the lounge, past the furtive glances of the man’s entourage.

I'm in the shadow, the shadow of the Sun,

Where I belong there's something coming on.

No more waiting, times are changing

Badrani sets the backpack down on the floor and settles in beside the man at the table, who lays an arm over the back of the plush seat and leans in toward Badrani with a pearly white smile and a piercing stare. “«So,»” the man says.

And there's something coming on.

“«How’s your grandmother doing?»”


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