The Unfathomable Cruelty Of Fate


asi_icon.gif baruti_icon.gif

Scene Title The Unfathomable Cruelty of Fate
Synopsis Asi moves along the river's current.
Date February 7, 2020

The City of Nasiriyah rests on the banks of the Euphrates River, built during the era of the western industrial revolution as the seat of power in the Dhi Qar Governate. For all Nasiriyah’s beauty, the city’s modernity stands in sharp contrast with what lies just twenty kilometers to the southwest, the ruins of the ancient Sumer city of Ur. The ancient Ziggurat at the heart of Ur, built some five thousand years ago, still stands today. Iraq, as a nation, is full of these historic juxtapositions. The contemporary splendor of the modern world cast against the backdrop of an ancient civilization at the dawn of humankind.

Modern Nasiriyah is a thriving, metropolitan city of art and culture. The scars left behind by colonial conquest during the first World War and later wounds left by the Americans during two successive wars have long since healed. Nasiriyah now stands as a thriving hub of commerce and technology in a new Republic of Iraq, one built by the hands of its thriving SLC-Expressive citizens, but one largely unwelcoming of foreign interests. Nasiriyah represents the counterpurpose of Iraq’s desire for westernization against a cultural renaissance seeking to embrace the traditions of the past. Iraq at once yearns for acceptance in the global world, while reeling against cooperating with it in favor of isolationist nationalism.

It’s hard to see any of that from the windows of a penthouse hotel room. From fifteen stories up Nasiriyah is a sprawl of glass, steel, stone, and water. It is a thriving city that shows no signs of the outward terroristic threat the name Mazdak elicits. Even though it is Mazdak that controls the nation, drives it toward an unknown future, and has brought one foreigner to distant shores under muddied pretenses.

Asi Tetsuyama watches the sun setting on Nasiriyah with as much uncertainty as she had on its rise.

Dhi Qar, Iraq

February 7th
6:57 pm Local Time

The Sabbah Hotel was constructed in 2017, a fifteen story five-star hotel intended to serve international clientele. In spite of the tremendous amount of money spent on the hotel, the business has failed to find traction in international communities due to Iraq’s aggressive political footing as of late. Halls remain empty but staffed, rooms sit vacant, and the sprawling conference rooms and ballrooms are like ghost towns. Asi may well be the only guest here for all that she has seen anyone other than hotel staff during her multi-day stay as a mixture of prisoner and guest.

Mazdak has been kind to her during her stay, in so much as she believes the hotel may be owned by the organization based on the strict freedoms the staff has given her with roaming the grounds, and her inability to actually leave the hotel. Her room, palatial as it is, serves a purpose little more than a gilded cage.

To continue to have patience in such circumstances tested Asi more than she anticipated. It was one thing to be in a self-imposed quarantine from the rest of the world, and another to have it forced upon her. Even though she would rarely leave her hideaway, and even though it was smaller, it somehow felt more… comfortable there than the luxurious here.

Technically, she supposed, here she even had more physical freedom than she did in New York, at least judging by square footage. But it was all a matter of perspective.

When the glare of the sun on other buildings in the city grows too bright to comfortably watch any longer, Asi flits her gaze back down to the table pressed up against the window and her eyes shift hues to take on an internal glow. One arm wrapped around a knee while she sits, the monitor of the laptop perched on the table scrolls idly through the news. The US was only still speculating in public on what happened at PISEC.

She reaches with her other hand for the delicate china cup resting next to the device, sipping black coffee from it with all the poise it deserves. The news reflecting back up at her indicates confirmed deaths of prisoners without citing names, and she reads those lines twice before moving on to a different site entirely. Silently and motionlessly bidding an article about a new initiative announced by the Japanese Minister of Justice to open, she exhales through her nose shortly after, thoughts scattering and robbing her of her focus only a few rows into the reading.

If she had to sit through another day like this, Asi wasn't sure what she would do. She took care to keep her affairs as impersonal as possible while she was here waiting for her story about the prison break to be verified and accepted. In that time, she'd made only one phone call to ask someone to look after her possessions in New York. She'd burned through several books, checked the news at least twice a day, visited the recreational center three out of five days she'd been here waiting. Surely enough time had passed for them to have made a decision by now— either to uncage her, or to shoot her through the bars of her prison.

Would that they share with her which of the two it will be.

The soft click of a lock in the suite door is her pending answer.

Asi’s spine stiffens reflexively when she hears the sound of someone inviting themselves into her penthouse suite, and the clear sight lines from the table to the front door afford her an unobstructed view of two dark-skinned men in sleek black suits filing in. The men move to either side of the doorway, hands clasped in front of themselves. Following them in is a living heart-attack in gold-printed flats. The surprise of someone inviting themselves in pales in comparison to who was invited to this meeting.


Kam Nisatta, a woman who Asi watched die at the hands of Kimiko Nakamura, strides through the open door with the confidence and certainty of a woman who cheated death. Her hair is swept back from her face, held in a tight ponytail, black suit open wide at the collar where gold jewelry rests delicately across her collar. What Asi notices immediately is the haunting ice blue quality of once coal black eyes. One corner of Kam’s mouth threatens a smile, while a brow quirked up indicates her expectation of Asi’s reaction.

“It’s time,” is Kam’s only comment.

Asi remains seated when the door opens, but seeing who she does brings her to her feet. Her brow climbs up her forehead despite herself, her gaze flitting across Kam's features in an attempt to make sense of what she's seeing.

She doesn't need to understand it to react to it, though.

It might be an underwhelming response, but after Kam speaks, Asi turns to shut the screen of the laptop with the pads of her fingertips, then sweeps her black jacket off the back of the chair. She keeps her gaze only loosely ahead, but looks back to Kam once she's shrugged the jacket on and approached the doorway.

"You look well," she notes in a polite deadpan.

“I’m not,” is Kam’s cold retort. “You can leave,” she says to the guards that followed her into the room. They look to each other, then nod and quietly show themselves out into the hall, slowly closing the door to the suite behind themselves. Kam’s haunting blue eyes regard the door in the corner of her vision, then settle back on Asi.

“I was dead,” Kam starts to say, taking a step forward to Asi, “wasn’t I?” It’s the second part that takes Asi by surprise. It isn’t a rhetorical question. “I remember our altercation, I remember trying to warn you, and I remember— darkness.” She stops just out of arm’s reach to the technopath. “I woke up on a mortuary slab.”

Kam’s blue eyes narrow, her jaw set. She doesn’t say any more.

The brown of Asi's eyes are shaded over as Asi thinks back to that moment, the particular sting of regret it held. "You never finished what you meant to say." She sees no harm in admitting that, though there's apology in her gaze as she refocuses on Kam. "Monica and I wanted a solution where there were answers instead of death and dead ends. We took out Eizen to ensure it, but failed to consider how dedicated Nakamura was to ensuring you went unheard."

Her head lifts, chin tipping gently in Kam's direction. "You never finished what you had to say— but that doesn't mean it's too late to say it now."

After a pause, considering the other woman's initial answer, she adds, "Or whatever else is on your mind."

“It’s too late now,” is Kam’s defeated tone. The haunting quality of her eyes makes the enigmatic nature of that statement all the more unsettling. “Mr. Naidu is ready to receive you at the temple,” she says, pushing past any notions of retreading old ground. “I would offer to simply teleport you there, but I’m not the person you once knew.”

Instead, Kam takes a step aside and motions with a black-gloved hand to the door. “There’s a car waiting for you outside.”

Baruti could have sent anyone to retrieve Asi. But he sent Kam. He wanted Asi to see her, to know she was alive, to have all the questions she has in her head now. Nothing about this experience felt anything other than purposeful. Manipulative. Here’s the spider, inviting her into its parlor.

Kam motions her ahead, but Asi watches her instead. Gaze going to the gloved hand that directs her, and then back to the person it belongs to. One hand makes its way into her jacket pocket while she idles. "Who brought you back?" she asks in a gentle calm, unhurried for all the impatience she harbored earlier. Sometimes more important things come up.

“God,” is Kam’s flat and undecorated answer. “Or the Devil,” she adds without hesitation. “If either actually existed.” Her mouth twitches, not a restrained smile but something else. “They don’t. We’re alone.” She takes a step toward the door, tension in her shoulders as she regards Asi out of the corner of her blue eyes.

“You want to come of your own volition,” Kam suggests. “Otherwise he’ll come to you. You don’t want that, Asi. It’s better to comply.” In that, Asi now understands what that twitch of her mouth was. It was a nervous tic. It’s fear. She is afraid of Baruti.

Asi lingers a moment longer before her gaze shifts past Kam to the door. "After how long I waited, after everything done until now," she asides, brow lifting. "He can wait an extra two minutes."

But she follows after anyway.

"Neither exist, but here you stand anyway," she says as she pulls the door open herself. "Have you figured out whose side it's on?"

Kam snorts, halfway between a scoff and a laugh. Her blue eyes track back to the technopath and she impatiently turns to face her with a growing tension. “This isn’t about sides, Asi. You’re trying to put things into contexts that you understand. Like any person would do. But you’re making the same mistake Adam did, the same mistake the Company did, the same mistake Richard Ray did. You’re trying to contextualize something as a person when it isn’t.

Swallowing down a lump in her throat, Kam goes momentarily quiet. “The universe doesn’t care about you, or me. It simply is.”

"No," Asi affirms with a small smile as she looks back. "It doesn't. That's why we need to look out for each other." Pulling her hand from her pocket, she turns on her heel with the door half-opened. "It said the world was not meant for humankind, and I am unconvinced a power like that does not see us as anything but a more interesting flavor of human." Her expression settles as she gives a small nod. "Thank you for the warning."

"Should you want, you know where to find me. But if nothing else… good luck, Nisatta." She heads into the hall, drawing her hand back through her hair while she walks, wondering just what lays ahead for them both.

A temple, Kam said.

She wonders if it's to the god that isn't a god.

An Hour Later

The Zigguat of Ur

Tell el-Muqayyar, Nasiriyah

Dhi-Qar, Iraq

8:09 pm Local Time

Kam did not accompany Asi for her long drive out from the city of Nasiriyah. Instead, she found herself isolated in the back of an armored SUV, privacy partition raised and a bottle of champagne left in an ice bucket in the spacious back seat. The kind of secure transport visiting dignitaries would likely be treated to. The vehicle is branded with the new flag of the Confederated States of Iraq, making it as a government vehicle. Asi was able to watch the urban landscape winnow away out the tinted windows, soon replaced by a seemingly endless stretch of desert and dwellings that blend into the arid environment.

Asi’s ultimate destination was not in Nasiriyah at all, but an hour out of the city at the heart of a historic site she’d heard of. When the SUV stops it is in the darkness, brightened only by the pale glow of a nearly full moon hanging heavy in the sky directly over a stark, angular structure lit by a handful of metal braziers burning with open flame. The Great Ziggurat of Ur is one of Iraq’s cultural touchstones to ancient Sumeria. Though it doesn’t look ancient. Much of the temple’s exterior was reconstructed in the 1980s at the behest of Saddam Hussein, and the stark angular design of the ziggurat casts in perfect chiaroscuro.

The handle gives when Asi pulls it, so she sees herself out on her own, boots landing in the moonlit dust. Her gaze wanders up the facade of the temple, up its many steps. It lifts even further to the moon itself before she begins the ascent at her own pace, not waiting for direction or for escort. After the first several steps, she pulls out a small drone from inside her jacket, letting it flutter to life off the palm of her hand and cast a light ahead of her to better assure her steps by.

The drive out had been longer than anticipated, but it gave her time to adjust and mentally prepare, as much as one can for the unknown— for something guaranteed to defy any expectation. Naidu had shown a demonstration of power in revealing Kam, in revealing what was possible by those closest to him… or maybe even himself.

She passes through the gateway, and crests the top of the staircase in silence, without letting her gaze stray from the path ahead. That was all that was left now— anything else a distraction. The shadows of the ancient ruins atop the ziggurat are large enough to hold her attention anyway.

What is left of the original Ziggurat lies partly buried by time atop the new facade. Ancient stones sunken into hard-packed earth cut at right angles that show the effort of human hands. Trenches between some of the slabs are filled with shadows cast by the moonlight. It is here that Baruti Naidu chose to meet a different devil. The oni. Asi.

Asi finds Baruti waiting for her, his back to her until the soft whirr of her drone draws his luminous blue eyes to her. They are different from Kam’s, more energetic. Where hers feel like deep polar ice, his feels like the interior of a neon sign. He keeps his hands in his pockets as he turns to face Asi, moonlight framing him as much in light and darkness as the temple.

“This temple was constructed over four thousand years ago,” Baruti explains, as though he were a tour guide. “The people of Sumer dedicated it to the moon god Nanna, though as time went on cults worshipping Nanna’s daughter Inanna, or Ishtar.” She can clearly see the blue rings of his eyes flick back to the ruins. “Inanna-Ishtar appears in more myths than any other deity in her pantheon, more than her progenitors, more than those who came after. They carved a symbol to her in these very rocks.” Baruti looks back to Asi. “An eight-pointed star.”

Baruti briefly looks to the ground, then back up to Asi. “Mazdak has significant cultural attachment to these stories.” His shoulder rise and fall in a hapless and casual shrug. “I don’t. I was born in Ghana, but was raised in South Africa most of my life. My roots started elsewhere. But I can appreciate Mazdak’s strong cultural identity.” He takes a few, meandering steps toward Asi.

“How have you enjoyed your stay in Nasiriyah?” Baruti asks, as if this were a casual calling.

Everything here had its purpose. If Baruti were a believer, perhaps even the date of their meeting held its own significance, the phase of the moon overhead important in relation to the goddess the temple stood for. At the very least, there was the obvious. "The star carved into the ground is the star bled into the center of Mazdak's flag. To meet here is… poetic. Meeting with the man at Mazdak's heart, at its very heart." Asi doesn't smile, but there's a note of appreciation in the words.

Her pace doesn't falter when he begins walking to meet her, waiting to slow only once they're several arms apart. "The view of the city from a distance has had to satisfy me," she airs. "But the hotel has been comfortable. Modern. I have never been to this part of the world before, only treated those who came back from it."

After looking ahead to what Baruti had been seeing before Asi approached, she looks back to him, meeting his bright eyes with the natural darkness of her own. "I trust you had me brought all this way to have a more productive conversation than that, though," she segues with a slight cant of her head. "The last time we spoke, you said that was not the day I would choose a side, and I have had plenty of time to think on that matter." Brow lifting, she goes on, "The question I have had for you since then is how many sides you think there are."

Baruti’s answer is a smile. “The world isn’t binary. It is multifaceted, multicultural, multidimensional.” He walks a few paces, coming to sit on the corner of a slab of ancient stone, resting his hands on his thighs. “But the side I spoke of was a historic sense and a political one. Aligned with Mazdak, or not. The world may deal in gradients, but we don’t have that privilege.” For a moment Asi’s drone steals Baruti’s attention, but it doesn’t break his concentration. “And, for the record, I didn’t bring you here.” His eyes flick back to Asi. “You sought me out. Just as it would be.”

There isn’t much time for Asi to muse over the meaning of his last statement of fact, as Baruti shifts the conversational gears. “To your point about the heart of things, I feel a need to clarify. There are…” his brows furrow, “were, eight founders of Mazdak. Five have passed away, leaving three. I am one remaining founder. One voice. But I am not a monolith anymore than I am a part of the culture that Mazdak seeks to protect.”

Baruti’s focus is locked on Asi now, and it feels like the conversation has finally meandered to the direction he’d intended it to. “I am a priest, Asi. Not of ancient Sumerian mythology cobbled together from conquered peoples and absorbed cultures, not of modern-day fairy tales and moral fables. I am a priest of a tangible faith. One with simple tenets, one with a living god.” His expression softens, as if he’s trying to figure out how best to explain everything to someone who has heard so little of his perspective.

“Inanna and Ishtar are fiction,” Baruti explains, motioning to the temple. “They’re the result of myth, no more real than… than the characters on River Styx.” He smiles, finding his analog. “But they were real, to someone. Based on real people, but distorted as though viewed through a warped mirror. There are scraps of truth in the stories of Inanna and Ishtar, scraps of our history. Of our struggle, millennia old.” Baruti motions with one hand to the stone slab next to him, an invitation for her to join him. “I would tell you about this faith, or answer whatever other questions you may have. You belong with us, Asi.”

The description of the world as multidimensional merits a thoughtful— approving?— note from Asi as she watches Baruti take his seat. His offer to join him as well as the additional context he provides her is considered over a pause, one in which she turns the information over mentally.

Before she says anything at all, she walks the short distance and sits. With the beginnings of a whisper, she lifts her hand from her thigh, palm flipping upward. Her eyes glow with an inner light— a neon blue not as aggressive as the one that dominates Baruti's gaze, but similar nonetheless— and the tiny drone drops into her palm, the light on it extinguished. The moon bathes the pale stone and they who rest on it, and their abilities make visible at least the movement of their eyes.

"I would hear more," she agrees softly, letting her hand and the drone come to rest on her lap. "And then I would hear why you believe I belong with you." Asi shifts a look to the priest at her side, posture poised. "Go on, Baruti Naidu."

Baruti clasps his hands together between his knees, sitting forward on the stone slab. “Roughly four thousand years ago, people like you and I — people with superhuman abilities — walked this world in far fewer numbers than we do today. We were a vanishingly small minority. If our inferences of history are correct, many — if not all — of our kind originated from a single person who was the ostensible first of our species. A person changed by a one-in-a-billion cosmic event on a night when the sky burned with a spiral aurora with eight tails.” He motions to the otherwise clear sky, illustrating the point.

“That person,” Baruti says with a look back to Asi, “could awaken that fire in others. The fire inside all of us, the potential for our awakening. She did so to create family, and awakened three siblings.” Baruti looks down to his hands as he folds them in his lap. “As their numbers grew, as word of their miracles spread, those without gifts became fearful and resentful. A great king of the time, Sargon of Akkad, found a way to enslave this progenitor and their kin. One died in captivity, another fell into great remorse, and a third broke free but did nothing to save their family.”

Baruti pauses, smoothing his palms together and letting his gaze wander the stone floor. “Our progenitor bargained with Sargon for the freedom of their last child, in exchange for servitude. To which the king agreed. He bestowed upon this progenitor a title — Uluru — though over time Uluru’s deeds would become synonymous with Inanna and Ishtar. When Sargon lay on his deathbed, he made a decree for his servant Uluru. They were to be beheaded.” Baruti motions at his feet. “Here. So that no other would rule with as much sovereignty as he did.”

Baruti’s expression flattens, solemn and silent for a moment. “Uluru died on these slabs, their execution heralded by a total solar eclipse. Sargon of Akkad died days later. But Uluru…” Baruti spreads his hands, “transcended death. I know little of their history after this era, Mazdak’s historic insight is largely geocentric. Though I believe Uluru came to inhabit other hosts, travel to other continents, and continue to spread our kind.” Baruti’s shoulders rise and fall. “This is history tinged by fantasy and interpretation, but there is enough verifiable fact to prove Uluru existed and… exists today.”

Resting his hands on his thighs, Baruti squares his attention on Asi once more. “I believe you belong with us, not because I expect you to understand an ancient and esoteric faith. But because I understand that you are someone who sees the pragmatic truth. You and I, people such as we are, are ostensibly superior to most mundane humans. In a comparison of skill, would you not want a healer tending your wounds rather than a surgeon? Would you not want a hypercognitive to be researching the newest advances in technology, technopaths in charge of information security… and so on.”

“There is a simple logic behind Mazdak. We were born to rule.” Baruti says with no hint of humility. “That isn’t to say that ordinary humans have no place in our society. Iraq is full of ordinary people. But our kind have talents and gifts that no ordinary person could ever hope to achieve no matter the technology they try to use to emulate it. Other nations of the world see this truth and struggle to hold on to the old ways, and in turn subjugate our kind.”

Smiling, Baruti seems so much more affable and personable than he did in Japan. “Mazdak isn’t about spreading a religious ideology. That is merely what unites us. We aim to spread liberty for our kind, speak truth to power, and prevent the genocide of our people. And… like you, we will do so through any means necessary.”

All this time, Baruti has not once mentioned Mohinder or the PISEC raid. He hasn’t brought up anything that she was asked to do. It is an elephant in a room full of other elephants.

It's a lot to consider, what's been spoken and unspoken both. Asi sits through it all stoically, unmoving, the light in her eyes fading. The dark better hides the subtle shifts in her gaze, mutes any hint of emotion while she weighs the revelation and proposition for its truth.

Uluru, the first of them all. Mazdak, champions of Evolved freedom. Some tenebrous string between them existed, which Baruti neglected to expand on.

Her eyes narrow a touch as she reflects on the message spoken through Eve and so many others. The Resurrection is coming. Whose? The lost child?

There's not enough time for all her questions, or even to prioritize them.

Her head tilts slightly in his direction without her gaze following. Were she to lean, it might seem like she were sharing a secret, but it's not so personal a gesture. "What excuse exists for harming others like us, when we are already so few, if our liberation— our empowerment is what you seek?" Asi asks evenly. "How do you explain what was done to Hana Gitelman?"

Now she does shift him a look out of the corner of her eye. "Your words are gutes-asi but you've done such a job at embittering others against you, those who could be your allies."

Baruti can’t help but smile when Asi says that Sumerian phrase, but he doesn’t quantify the expression. “Just because we were born the same, does not mean we hold the same ideological principles. We’re all humans, and yet what has human history been if not internecine conflict?” His brows raise slowly, then lower.

“Hana Gitelman was not targeted.” He elaborates. “She invaded our systems and we deployed a security countermeasure against her. She herself should not be a stranger to the notion of casualties in wars of ideology. How many Awoken did Hana Gitelman kill who were allied with the Department of Evolved Affairs?” He lets his shoulders rise and fall. “The Company?”

Choosing not to linger on Hana’s own actions, Baruti refocuses to Mazdak. “Before the civil war, Mazdak learned of the United States’ plan to kidnap a man. His name was Amid Halebi. We tried to intercept Amid on multiple occasions, to save him. But the Ferrymen prevented us. One of their own, Noah Bennet, fed Amid to the government in exchange for favors. Amid wound up becoming a living nuclear reactor powering the Institute’s cruelty…” Baruti’s blue eyes track away from Asi. “He died for our failure, as so many others have.”

Folding his hands, Baruti’s brows crease together. “That isn’t to say Mazdak is without its own crimes. An organization as large as ours has just as many bad actors in it. Amid’s very daughter was wildly mistreated, rightly taken from us. There is no clean answer, Asi.” His blue eyes track back to her. “If you search for ideological purity, you will die before your search is over. The choice comes to… which sins are you willing to forgive, to achieve a better future?”

Asi takes less time with her thoughts this time, leaning immediately into, "And how will you do that— How will you achieve that future, that freedom for us?" She turns to look at him openly, leaning slightly forward in her interest. "Will it happen in this lifetime? Will it happen by the hand of your Uluru, who lives and breathes and walks again on this earth?"

“That, only the prophets know for sure,” is Baruti’s glib non-answer. But he spreads his hands in a gesture of good faith and laces them together again. “The real answer is through conflict. No freedom was ever given freely. I walk wherever I wish in South Africa because of blood spilled to earn freedom from Aparthied. No one who holds power over others ever gives it up willingly.” It’s an honest answer, if not a clean one.

“As to whether Uluru will choose to end the conflict,” Baruti angles his head to the side and takes on a more skeptical look, “that all depends on the winds of fate. I cannot profess to say what a god will or will not do, only that I follow their guidance. Uluru may live, but I have not — yet — seen them in the flesh. But that is what faith is, isn’t it?” He smiles at that, genuine though somewhat Cheshire.

“I can’t profess to knowing with certainty that Mazdak will be victorious, or when…” Baruti presses his hands to his knees and slowly rises from the stone slab, then offers a hand out to Asi to help her up. “But I will say that there will come a time when everyone will choose a side. I sincerely hope we are on the same one when that happens.”

Asi remains seated, only her gaze moving up. A few more questions before she decides, it seems. "Do you have faith, then, that your god is not angry over being sealed away by our own kind?" She arches an eyebrow. "Say you do. That being said, you associate closely with Adam Monroe." It's her turn for her to make an open gesture with her palm. Clearly, if there's a godlike being who might turn on Adam and anything near him, she'd not like to be in its path— no matter how well-meaning a path it would be cutting across.

Her gaze is unerring on Baruti, lips pressed into a line. She doesn't yet take his hand, the drone in her hand palmed from her right hand to her left. There's one last question she has, but she's patient in it.

“I do not fear Adam,” Baruti says, which isn't that Asi asked at all. “And neither does Uluru.” He lowers his proffered hand. “Faith will guide me to my end, whether it is at the hand of an angry god or at their side. That is not for me to know…” Slowly, Baruti paces away from the slab they had been sitting on and comes to face the long, fire-lit stairs descending the ziggurat. “Adam Monroe does what he wants, and while he supports us… he is not Mazdak, and we are not his caricature in Shedda Dinu.”

Turning slowly, Baruti fixes a blue-eyed look on Asi under the silvery moon. “Do not trouble yourself with worries of he, or us. That affair will sort itself out in time. Concern yourself with this moment, here and now, and what your heart tells you. Whether it is to run, to walk…” his brows rise slowly, “or to fly.”

What her heart tells her?

It tells her he's offered her his back twice now.

It tells her he's right that the only path forward for their people is to fight for it, despite the quiet, seething spite she still harbors for what was done to her to spur her on this path.

It tells her…

Asi rises to her feet, hands by her side. The knife in her boot remains in her boot. "It bids me to remain concerned with the larger picture. I am done," a word punctuated by a step forward, "being anyone's pawn. All blindly obeying has earned me in this life is a knife in my back." It's a flat and unapologetic observation, unaccompanied by any gesture. "Answered questions build faith. I am sure in the discovery of your god, you posed yourself them time and time again until you found your facts."

"So tell me this - there have been whispers since the new year that a resurrection is upon us." Asi pauses at Baruti's side, glancing to him. That she already has a suspicion is evident in her look. "Do you know whose?"

Unsmiling, she allows with a touch of levity, "Were it Nisatta, I imagine she would be revered, not relegated to the role of a mere messenger." Her voice lowers as she adds, "No— it does not seem like a thing that would bleed into the dreams of many if she was the end of it." Whether or not the answer is satisfying, her curiosity wouldn't let her make her decision without asking.

“Nisatta was a gift,” Baruti says with no indication of sarcasm. “Of sorts. We were in the right place at the right time, which…” he smiles to himself, “is easier than most things. As for the resurrection…” that elicits a direct look, and once more Asi finds those blue eyes squarely fixed on her. “That is a matter of much debate. We have all heard it in some form or another, that you have means that the message is spreading. What it means, though, everyone has their opinions.”

Baruti paces back from the stairs, coming to stand near Asi. “I believe it means Uluru’s resurrection, because I am of the belief that while they are here they are not whole. Others believe it to be a spiritual resurrection, a meeting of the minds by which all the world will see as one. There are still more who take personal meaning to it. To a literal resurrection of…” he spreads his hands, “I don’t know.”

Baruti briefly looks at Asi’s drone, then back to her. “I’m curious. What do you think it means?”

Asi smiles abruptly, a small thing she guards the appearance of by letting her gaze fall, wander to the side, and then return back to Baruti again. "That speculation isn't sacrilege is a touch encouraging," she admits freely. Her expression sombers shortly after as she carefully remarks, "Your god created itself a family, but to Sargon it lost one of its members. Perhaps it—"

And her demeanor softens. "Perhaps she seeks a reunion. A resurrection."

Barely a breath elapses before Asi glances back to Baruti. "But that assumes much," comes from her dismissively. "There is the present to consider first. Beginning with this moment." A thin exhale comes from her, her jaw rotating as she feels the weight of her words both said and those yet unspoken. Her gaze remains fixed on him.

"I won't forgive you your sins, but I won't be the one to damn you for them either. What I endured because of what you did nearly drove me off this path entirely. But to stay angry for having my eyes opened, when there is the chance for so much better for our people?" Asi shakes her head once firmly. "I could not bring myself to hold onto it." She's reticent to admit it, but leaving that unaired wasn't something she could do either way this went.

"So," she supposes, turning to better face him. "You have heard my terms. Do you accept them? Do you still believe I should stand with you?" Her hand lifts, offered out into the space between them. "Because if so, I would ask what comes next. Where do we go from here?"

“You return home,” Baruti says plainly. “One way or another, your journey would end that way. I have said my peace, accepted yours, but choices aren’t made today. Not final ones.” It’s now that Baruti makes his way back to the stairs. “You will think about this, about what I asked you to do and why, the ways in which you accomplished those ends, and what shape you wish your future to take. Perhaps you tell others what I told you, perhaps you keep it to yourself. This is your counsel to keep.” He regards Asi over his shoulder. “What happens next, comes later. But, we will be in touch.”

Baruri slowly begins to descend the stairs, making a motion for her to follow. “Come, I will walk you to the car.”

“And see you home safely.”

Some Time Later

Somewhere in Iraq

Baruti Naidu’s luminous eyes pierce the dimly lit hallway. Natural overhead light spills down from small skylights in the corridor, cut into the ancient sandstone. Each time he passes through the shafts of moonlight, the others gathered in shadow gain brief insights into his mindset from fleeting glimpses of his expression. But they say nothing, it is not the time for words. Not for them. The figures in shadow keep their private council, speaking in hushed tones in a dozen languages. Baruti does not stop for any of them.

He must deliver the news.

At the end of the corridor a pair of men in tactical armor garbed with matte black head-scarves give Baruti a subtle nod of recognition, keeping their rifles resting over their shoulders. As he passes through the threshold, Baruti’s pace slows and his shoulders roll to relieve a growing knot of tension between his shoulders. The space beyond is like a chapel, but round. Columns rise from floor to ceiling here, faded inscriptions on them long lost with the passage of time. Electric candles burn in here, set in tall sconces in the walls. Their smokeless light ensures no damage to the ancient structure.

“It is done,” Baruti says, his voice echoing in the high dome of the ceiling. He steps between the pillars, over twisting cables running together that snake across ancient stone. He passes by banks of computers on wheeled stands, past flat-panel monitors showing steady but weak vital signs. “Asi Tetsuyama came, she listened, and she has returned.” The hiss-click of a mechanical respirator works noisily near the center of the room, an accordion pump moving up and down to regulate the breathing of someone who can no longer do as much for themselves.

In the center of the floor, an old and scuffed sarcophagus of matte black metal lays under a single fluorescent light. Broken panels on the side once did what many computers scattered around the temple do now.

“As was said,” a woman standing out of the light says in response. “It isn’t long now,” she adds over the noise of the life support systems connected to the battered ACTS containment system. She steps partly into the light, one hand brushing along the scarred surface. “See that Ms. Bennet is ready for travel, it won’t be long now.”

“She is resting in her room,” Baruti says of Claire, “I will have someone fetch her.” He agrees, approaching the ACTS and rests one hand on its cold metal surface, fingers tracing a smashed keypad and cracked touch screen. “Has he said anything new?” Baruti asks quietly. The woman in shadow shakes her head, withdrawing her hand from the metal surface.

“No,” she says with a look to one of the computer monitors, scrolling with thousands of lines of data. Cables from the computer snake through an open window on the top of the sarcophagus like a thousand snakes intruding into the space. “But he will soon enough.”

Baruti looks down into the window, blue eyes narrowing. “Has anything changed,” he rephrases his question. To which the woman in shadow raises one brow and purses her lips into a small smile.

“No,” she affirms, and Baruti seems relieved. “The river stays the course,” Her eyes track down to the same point Baruti is looking at.

“Just as he foresaw.”


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