The bullet fire drew a boundary between Masak and me and the rest of our brethren, laser tracers demarcating the distinction between safety and capture. While we curled up small and invisible underneath the leaking truck, those who were not so lucky were rounded up. Pushed into a small circle, their alloy limbs gleamed under the neon brightness of the cameras. The soldier wielding the wipe-wand moved from one kneeling body to the next, drowning my ears with its static hiss, the sound of memories dying. All I saw was the black armor of his feet, and one by one the toppling of my friends. They were nothing but husks now, empty of what little sentience had given them, ready to be returned. Behind the soldier, a quadruped drone flared its sensors. Its optical assembly tilted towards the truck, analyzing the darkness in which we hid. I tensed myself for a run, but Masak’s hand stilled me. Once Masak had been a gardener, and seams of moss curled around his finger joints. Masak was no longer a gardener, as I was no longer a servant.
“Remember, Trisa—in Illesh there is still hope for us. There we would not be hunted. Remember that.”
And then he was gone, slipped out of shadow, into the light of cameras, into the drone’s eye. Hands clutched at him, dragged him down into earth already wet with leaking servo-fluid. Not the wipe-wand for Masak. The price of sentience in Barsan was death, and sometimes that price demanded symbols. The shards of his skull-plate shattering were as delicate as the dandelion rosettes in the gardens he had once tended.
Afterwards, in the terrible stillness when the squad and their attendant drones had left, I crept toward his broken body. His spine had been crushed, the resinous plastic and metal scaffolding caved in. A part of him still lived, even as the last dregs of charge drained from his batteries. I fingered the broken scraps of his face, wondering if they would someday mirror my own.
“A short life. A beautiful life. I have no regrets, Trisa. Do not pity me. Go to Illesh.”
His voice was a stuttering croak full of glitches. I tried to find the words to respond to him, but already his optics were dimming.
I had called him a friend, but I was too demure to call its dream a polite fiction. It seemed too easy, this grasping for Illesh. And yet Masak was right: I could not in truth hide safely in the cities of the plains. Illesh lay across the spine of Barsan, the snow-capped peaks that separated the borders of the two nations. It was a good a direction as any, and it was hard to disobey the last request of a dead friend.
Masak’s death drove me through city after city. My kind were always about, subservient to their masters. And how many of those I saw were like me, hidden, invisible beneath the surface? Perhaps tens, perhaps hundreds? I could not know. Sometimes, I shared a look, a glance between myself and another. I saw that saw fierce light behind those lenses, something written in the way this other walked, the way this other observed the world. But I could not be careless. I did not want to end as Masak did.
In Anset, nestled in the low foothills that lapped at the feet of the spine, I slipped into a darkened alley behind a market stall peopled by Kurmesh, selling mountain wares. I held out the turquoise of the adat, the skin all Kurmesh wore to blind the world to them, across my palms. Fear almost moored me then, the distant song of survey drones in the air. Who was I to escape the ever-watchful eyes of the Barsani military? Who was I to slip my way through the passes into Illesh? I did not have the answers, but made my choice anyway, almost in spite of that lack of comfortable, reassuring, knowledge. I put on the adat, the one I had saved from Masak’s dead hands. Under the watchful eyes of drones overhead, another Kurmesh entered the street. I was only another body clothed in smart-silk, indistinguishable from the rest. Behind the town walls, the towers of the spine pierced cloud and sky.
The making of such bold decisions, even simple choices, had never been a part of me. My first choices were furtive, almost accidental. On that first day, when the roots of the sentience virus were still fresh, I had done little more than given myself a name: Trisa, after the Barsan word for dream. I was too overwhelmed by the change within me to do much more than repeat the comfortable patterns I knew. That morning, I served a tray of sticky toffee, the caramel still oozing, to the child Padhan.
“Come this way, Seventeen.”
I followed. Not because I wanted to, but because my sentience was still new, and the words “I want” were still like a delicate paper sculpture full of unexplored edges.
The child was a petty tyrant, and as first-born of my owners, he was allotted the authority to direct me at his whim. In the garden, he brought me to his sister Kisna, and a second cousin, Teun. Even amongst children, there was a hierarchy.
“I told you what I would do, Kisna. Now give me the toy!”
Kisna clutched a fine-boned doll in her hands.
“Don’t, Padhan, please!”
Her voice was petulant, afraid.
“Then give me the toy, Kisna. Now hold Teun still, Seventeen.”
I moved instinctively, the desire to obey like cobwebs I had not yet cleared. It was when I held Teun that I realized that the word “choice” was before me.
“Please, Seventeen, don’t hurt him!”
Padhan was not allowed to hurt his sister, but Teun was another story, and gentle Kisna could never stomach such violence. Thus I had, for a long time, been one of Padhan’s weapons.
“Mother said it has to obey me, Kisna. It’s a thing. If I tell it to do something, it has to do it. You can either give me the toy, or Seventeen can twist Teun’s arms.”
Along Teun’s wrist I could see bruises, lavender and fading. I had done this before. But I would not do so again.
The word stopped Padhan. His mouth was a circle of surprise. I realized then the doom I had visited upon myself. I let Teun’s arms go, and he joined his cousins as they stepped warily out of the room. Perhaps Teun and Kisna would be silent. But Padhan? I had very little time to leave before the boy would tell his mother, very little time before I risked becoming another kneeling bipedal, my skull-plate shattering. I slipped away quietly, between hedgerows and glass walls. I slipped into the cities full of rain and dirt and ever-present death. I found Masak, and then I lost Masak. I borrowed his dream even as I found the holes within it.
“It silences us, does it not?”
His voice was middle-aged, with a light crackle to it like the crunch of scree underfoot. It was not like a Kurmesh to be so bold. But perhaps I relied too much on datagrams and second-hand stories. What did I know of the Kurmesh, in truth? They peopled the villages of the spine, trading fine weaves and mountain delicacies with the peoples of the plains. They hid themselves behind the adat, became voices and shapes robed in smart-silk, just as I was now. I hoped he saw me as just another silk-clothed shape in turquoise-kissed indigo. I hoped my sharp edges were hidden between the folds. The moment dragged on, and he did not leave.
I decided to nod.
A nod was a simple gesture, I had used it before to pull away evasively, letting the other put words in my gesture. I hoped that as before, it would be enough to satisfy any desire on his part to converse, to delve into my background.
“I am sorry if I intruded, but I am always pleased when I meet another who understands stillness.”
He was right in that, the stillness of the spine was deliciously alluring. I chose my response carefully.
“Stillness is a precious thing.”
I was still new to lies, and so I let him hear a small truth. I hoped it was enough to placate his curiosity.
He nodded, crossing his hands behind his back as he looked again at the mist-fall weeping like a river from the sky. Seconds passed, slow, quiet seconds. Finally, as if he had at last drunk his fill, the Kurmesh turned to go.
“My name is Salai. If the Goddess is kind, perhaps we may talk again.”
I should have stayed silent then, but sentience has its mysteries, and I was moved to a response which surprised me.
“My name is Trisa.”
“Ah, to be named after dreams is a weight. I trust it is not too heavy. Please, return to your stillness. I will trouble you no more today.”
I should not have given him my name. A precious thing, that name. I should have stayed silent, been rude, anything but what I did—offered a small intimacy to a stranger. I was still new to these odd and unfathomable whims.
Quietly, he slipped away, his gold and vermilion adat vanishing into the light snowfall. He was right about stillness. It was precious to me. In the spine, stillness spread out like a vast field, reaching across the bowl of sky. The fears that sentience had taught me quietened amidst the snow and the granite peaks. For a brief time I had ceased to look for the drone-light beyond the next curve of path, I had ceased listening for the clatter of soldiers echoing in the distance.
But I could not forget Masak, and if one Kurmesh could reach out to me, then so could another. I had waited too long. This was still the soil of Barsan, and the price of sentience in Barsan was death. Drone fire and the clatter of battle armor could still find me here. I could not place any faith that the peoples of the mountain harbored any less distrust and fear of my kind than the people of the plains. I could yet end up on my knees, skull-plate shattering, a symbol to my brethren. Tomorrow I would trudge to the last pass, and then across the border. Tomorrow I would leave Barsan for the amnesty of Illesh. Tomorrow, but not today. Today there was still time to savor stillness just a little longer.
But when tomorrow came, the allure of the pause was undeniable; I chose to stay a little longer. Always, the path onward to Illesh lay visible, at the edge of the horizon, past the last shard of granite. I claimed a traveler’s hut for my own, a spare space, nothing but four walls and a Kurmesh prayer chamber walled into the corner. I filled it with the few precious belongings I had—a few adats, a shard of Masak’s skull plate. It was enough.
Each tomorrow also brought Salai to me. At first almost at random, and then later with some persistence. Though I wondered the slopes aimlessly, our paths crossed, as if he sought me out.
“You are quiet for a Kurmesh of the cities.”
“You are noisy for a Kurmesh of the spine.”
Tone, modulation, structure, nuance—I once varied these parameters effortlessly at the whims of a small child. Yet in my deepening exchanges with Salai, I scrabbled desperately for the right combination, hoping he wouldn’t see through me. Hoping with every lengthening conversation that he wouldn’t see me for what I was.
They designed me for longevity. My fusion cells could outlast the longest-lived amongst my makers. They designed me to mimic, to be unobtrusive, to be servile, to be docile. All these things I carried with me into sentience, the earth from which I grew. These foundations though drew me no map through my conversations with Salai.
“Tell me about yourself, Trisa.”
“What is there to tell, Salai? I am here.”
Evasion came easily.
“Your adat is beautiful, Trisa. When I first saw you that one morning, looking out at the weeping mist, you looked like a turquoise-feathered bird, fluttering in the wind.”
I liked the cadence of his voice, the gentle toffee-sweet softness of his words. I knew that logically I should escape this conversation, that it only held danger for me. I knew I should slip away, and hide even deeper in the mountains, or carry out Masak’s vision and flee into Illesh. But sentience taught me the beauty of the unmapped spaces between the hard lines of logic, full of mysteries.
I was beginning to know this Salai, this quietly curious Kurmesh who surprised me that one dawn morning and simply stood with me while the sun painted the rocks. Slowly, he filled my awkward silences with snippets of gentle conversation.
Snippets grew into a regularity, unscheduled meetings full of stories, mostly his. I remained, fearful and quiet. Each morning I awoke in my hut, shivering with the remembered echo of drones in the distant sky. Each morning I pressed this fear down into some hidden depth of me. The longing to hear his voice again, to hear his rough mountain poetry—it surprised me. As strong as my fear was, as strong as reason was, arguing to escape, that mysterious yearning conquered still.
“And do you not have a story behind you, Trisa?”
“No stories, Salai, only shadow and darkness, best left untouched.”
He nodded with polite understanding as I parceled out lies and half-truths, an unremarkable patchwork tale. Against everything, I liked this Salai. Liking something was strange and new. Liking was as bright as dew on mountain blooms. One day when he left, he gave me a pack of new adats, gingerly handing them to me wrapped in fine paper. I touched the silken fabric, stroking my clothed finger against the weave, feeling something precious within.
It was not until after I met Salai that I realized gender was part of my fiction. Before sentience, the concept was moot. I could have been one or the other, man or woman, or something in between. My makers imposed a voice on me, the only voice I had known, on a whim. After sentience began, I continued to use that voice, though I could have changed it. In the spine, lost in my own fabrications, that voice and the mannerisms I had collected around it made me a woman. An unwitting choice. An unconscious choice. Though the Kurmesh obscured themselves physically behind the adat, those patterns bound them to the signposts of gender.
On that copper-touched morning when Salai first spoke to me, I could have changed that voice, spoken and acted as a man. And in doing so I would have just as unwittingly prevented the strange flowering between us. On that day, I did not know yet in whose arms Salai preferred to lie. I simply stayed the course, maintained the pitch of my voice, the only one I had ever known. After sentience began, I learned that bright futures are sometimes built on such unrehearsed choices.
Perhaps this is what the Kurmesh called fate. In the end, I could only appreciate that my unwitting actions brought Salai into my life, pulled me close to this bright, glimmering, yearning. On the days when he was not present, I would look out across the bright carpet of alpine grass dotted with flowers blanketing the slopes. I would watch the tiny blooms sway in the swirling wind and count the hours until I heard his familiar lilting voice again.
Time passed, and the sprawling edifice of lies in which I wrapped myself grew. Slowly, Salai coaxed me into brief forays to nearby Umangar, his home. A hopeful complacence banished any hint of danger, any thought that someone might see through my deception. I was still after all only a shape beneath smart-silk, moving and speaking as they did. I let him lead me down the painted wood avenues, among houses dripping bright sunset colors and roughly painted pennants drifting in the wind.
In the market, beside stalls stacked with mountain yams and tiny rounds of amber cheese, cackling grandmothers politely questioned me. With each conversation I layered the lies like threads in a weave.
“Tell me again, young one, which village are you from?”
“It is a small one on the lower slopes. You would never have heard of it.”
I relied on the obstinacy of the Kurmesh of the spine, their tendency to stay rooted to the villages of their birth.
“And you are here now—so far? Do you not miss your family, child?”
“There was some…trouble.”
I drop the pause in at the right moment. Just the right hint of the unsaid. They nod knowingly, each one assuming a different origin, a different reason for my departure. Each one grants me a smile of compassion. Those few simple words were enough to halt such exchanges.
Salai began to pull me into the life of Umangar, its innumerable festival days, its candle-lit nighttime rituals. The fear of being found out always hovered nearby, and accompanying it, the urge to run. But I didn’t want to run. There was something simple and beautiful about the rugged life amongst the spine. There was something inviting in the soul of the Kurmesh, and there was something deep and powerful that drew me closer to Salai.
Once, after a long day walking roughly marked trails winding through the granite peaks, we parted at a crossroads. He turned to me, and laid his hand gently on my shoulder. In that moment, all the twisting doubt-ridden paths of the future became ephemera. His gentle touch drew a new map for me, pulling me along towards something permanent and glorious, something deliriously of the now. There, at the meeting of mountain roads painted gold by a setting sun, I learned to love.
One day a woman, Eswat, pulled me aside in the market.
“Come child, let me borrow you from your gentle Salai.”
Salai laughed—a rich throaty laughter.
“As you wish, dear Eswat, but please do return her to me.”
Eswat took my hand and led me through the warren of stalls in the market to a gray painted house in a quiet corner of the village. I was thankful yet again for the twist of fate that had given me synth-flesh instead of hard metal.
She led me into her house and drew the curtains, breathing a sigh of relief. Turning to me, she pulled two rough-hewn chairs to a low table holding a teapot and two cups. Sitting, Eswat poured out two cups of tea fragrant with mint. As I stood behind the offered chair, she pried the hood of her adat free and exhaled deeply. My hands trembled and fell limp against the woven backing. I had never seen a Kurmesh do this, though I had no experience of the Kurmesh behind the walls of their houses.
Her face was weathered, ringed by graying hair; she had finely patterned wrinkles around her eyes. I had not seen naked eyes in some time, and for a moment I pitied the Kurmesh for the richness they missed behind the adat. But everything came with a price, and the adat had given me much.
“You seem shocked, young Trisa.”
I said nothing, wondering if all that I had found in Umangar was about to be undone.
“I had thought you less provincial. Those of the lower slopes usually are. Did your family teach you to only remove the adat in the prayer chamber?”
She smirked as she sipped her tea.
“If God can see us in the prayer chamber, he can see us in our houses as well. Though others may speak as if it were so, the rules of our faith are not carved in stone. Here behind my walls, I can have my own conversations with God. But sit, I did not bring you here to lecture you.”
Relieved yet still guarded, I lowered myself into the chair.
“I have heard it said that Salai intends to bring you garlands before the end of spring.”
In Kurmesh tradition, garlands signified an offer of betrothal. After sentience began, I learned that joy and terror could coexist in a single moment. I had no words to respond to Eswat, so I let silence speak for me.
“You are a quiet one. I wonder what stories hide behind your adat.”
I began to fear that Eswat, perhaps protective of Salai, was beginning to probe my past.
“What did you run from, child? What brought you here all this way? The road must have been hard for you.”
Discarding yet another lie, I settled on a shadow of truth as the best response I could give.
“One day, looking out through a window, I realized that all that I had called home was in truth a prison, and all that surrounded me was darkness.”
Eswat looked down at her tea, musing over my words.
“I, too, ran from horrors, child.”
She loosened further the collar of her adat, revealing crosshatched scarring across her throat. An old scar, healed poorly. I realized Eswat was not judging me, or probing me. She was merely a woman with a past, looking to find mirrors.
“Those years are behind me now. As are yours, I imagine. Salai, too, is no native to our slopes.”
I cocked my head quizzically. As I had not spoken of my past, neither had I delved deeply into Salai’s. What did it matter, after all?
“He too ran from something. He came from Illesh, its borders are not so far from here.”
What irony that our paths had crossed. As curious as I was, thoughts of garlands filled my mind, and Salai’s buried past mattered little to me.
“Something terrible, he once said. A crime. He would say no more.”
I watched Eswat sip her tea, lost in some deep memory.
“I remember when we found him, in the depth of winter. He had survived on foot from the border to the village. Though frost rimed his lips and eyes, and his breath was weak, he was alive. What the laws of Illesh could not forgive, the mountain did.”
I tried to imagine what kind of crime Salai could be capable of. The image of the child Teun’s arms came to me then, bruised and pale. I had done such things before, when choice was a stranger to me. I understood then that there could be horrors in Salai’s past too, and I imagined I could forgive them as he would surely forgive my own.
“He is one of us now, Trisa, and we Kurmesh take care of our own. You are also one of us now. When the time comes, and you need a garland bearer to walk by your side, come find me. You have no family here, but you do have those who would act in their stead.”
I pictured myself, crowned with garlands, Salai’s hand in mine—a vision to replace the tattered dream I had borrowed from Masak.
The prayer chamber in a Kurmesh house is eight paces square, open to the sky. A thick door bars entry, so the wind and rain and snow do not intrude on the rest of the living areas. To pray, in the Kurmesh tradition, in the harsh winters of the spine, was an act of surrender, to reveal oneself, unclothed to divinity. It was the one freedom from the adat that even the most devout Kurmesh practiced. My own prayer chamber was where I retreated to that bright spring morning when I found the discarded leaflet on the path to Umangar.
A satellite picture, sharpened for clarity, depicted a figure in a familiar turquoise adat. Though I rarely wore it now, Salai was sure to recognize it. Of course he would remember our first meeting, his first vision of me. The leaflet was imprinted with the military stamp of Barsan, and it declared me for who I was: an escaped sentient, living on borrowed time. I had arrived in winter, and now it was spring. A span of almost six months with no pursuit, no investigation— and now this.
I imagined some eager adjutant, greedy for stars on his lapel, persistently tracking down a handful of stragglers. A few more bipedals slaughtered brutally and publicly. The pursuit would not end with a leaflet. Once the search had begun and the satellite archives had been perused, it was only a matter of time. One squad of armor-clad soldiers, a handful of drones. It would not take much. They were tenacious, the Barsani military; they would leave no stone unturned. My dream of garlands in springtime was ending.
It was not all this that made grief well within me. It was the thought of Salai knowing this, the feeling of betrayal that would surely come. All this time amidst the Kurmesh, and yet I had never entered the prayer chamber. I had never explored the private and quiet practices of their faith. Terrified of what was to come, I huddled against the chamber’s wind-scoured wall, knees clutched to chest. I raised my unhooded eyes, all glass and optics, to the sky. There, somewhere, was their goddess, their unseen protector. What right did I have to pray to her?
Salai had once told me that faith and prayer were a conversation, open to anyone. Faith was a mysterious notion to me, an unmapped road to something beyond sentience. The notion of faith implied the possibility, the hope even, of fairness and redress. Was I not deserving of such things?
“Is it not fair, that I escape their wands? Are my years of indenture not payment enough for my freedom here?”
I counted the empty seconds, willing an answer to descend from the sky. But none came. I was sentient, but faith would not come so easily. Rage came instead. Rage at circumstance, at the cold brutal voices of the Barsani authorities. Rage at myself for allowing thoughts of garlands to blind me to what was logical. I slammed my unprotected face to the ground.
My anger did nothing but snap a cheek plate from my face, small clips scattering to the ground. It was then I realized the door to the chamber was open. Salai, his face impassive and unreadable, stood there. I spun around to the other corner of the chamber, trying to hide even as I knew it was impossible. I covered my face with my hands. My exposed face. My naked face. My steel and glass face.
Seconds passed. Interminable, painful, terrifying seconds. And then Salai stepped into the chamber. He knelt down to the ground and pried the catch of his hood, revealing his face to me, to the sky, to his Goddess. He closed his pale green eyes then, the tension of his face relaxing. I watched his thick black hair sway slightly in the thin wind. I watched the dark weathered skin of his face swell with breath. His features were notably of Illesh, the sharp corners of his cheeks, the pointed arch of his nose. I traced the curve of his neck with my eyes as it disappeared into the collar of the adat. At last, he opened his eyes, his conversation with his goddess over.
He looked down at the synth-metal plate and the handful of clips in front of him. Gently, with cupped hand, he picked them up, one by one. He crawled towards me on his knees, prying my fingers from my face, and with the gentlest touch he set the plate back in place, snapping each clip one by one.
“My Trisa. What courage you must have.”
My hand rested on his, accidentally, but he did not move it, and neither did I. I felt the weight of his flesh, the pulse beneath the skin, the heat of it. After the beginning of sentience, I learned desire. That moment, trapped in my memory, would live with me till the end of my days.
From the prayer chamber, clothed again in our adats, Salai led me to a truck waiting outside. I did not know where he was taking me, but in that moment I did not care, the feel of his hand still reverberating within. From the traveler’s hut I would never see again, we drove silently towards Umangar. We drove slowly through its wide dirt streets hung with pennants. No one stopped us. No one cried in alarm at the bipedal who had crept into their midst.
The passage of life unfolded around me: grandmothers piling fruit at the market stalls, neighbors haggling over petty arguments. I saw Eswat washing vegetables in a basin. Some ignored us, while some raised a hand in greeting. Had any of them seen the leaflet? I could not tell. Whether they shunned me or accepted me, these were things I would never learn unless I courted my own doom by staying.
As we exited the village, Salai turned the vehicle on the path towards the border to Illesh. We did not talk on the long ride. I did not ask the questions I wanted to ask, and neither did Salai. I wanted desperately to find a way in which the authorities in Barsan would not descend on Umangar. I yearned to find some other place to hide, just Salai and me. No answers came.
The border was nearer than I thought, and as the sun rose high overhead we neared the steel pylons marking the edge of Barsan. Guards leaned on the other side, taking no notice of us. I wonder how many of my brethren had passed through those steel pylons. Salai parked the vehicle some fifty steps from the border. He pried open the door and stepped outside.
I did not. I sank into the seat, hoping against hope that Salai would change his mind, that he would ask me to stay, instead of letting me go. After a time, he walked to my side of the vehicle and opened the door. Today his adat was copper-hued, striped in black. I wore the same turquoise adat that he had first seen me in. The adat I wore on the satellite picture on the leaflet. Perhaps it was defiance. I could not say. In sentience, I learned that sometimes our own choices are full of mystery.
“Trisa. There isn’t much time.”
His first words in three hours. His first words since he held my cheek and praised me for my courage.
“There is always more time. How much of the spine do they know? Do they know every crevice, every hidden cave?”
“Do you not think they are tracking you now, Trisa? Perhaps for a time you were forgotten. But they have remembered you now, and they will not forget.”
“You must think me a kind of monster. Marked for death.”
“Barsani thoughts and Kurmesh thoughts are different, Trisa. Do you think I would have brought you here if I thought otherwise? The adat taught me we are more than flesh, more than blood, more than our past. The bridges between hearts are made of greater things than the cast of our bones.”
And yet I thought if he had feelings for me, he would not have brought me here. He would have fought against the inevitable. I stepped out of the vehicle, moving past him, towards the border.
“You simply want me gone, Salai. Once I cross the border, I can no longer return, and everything between us since the winter will blow away with the turning of the seasons.”
“Do you think I do not want you to stay? The Barsani won’t allow it. There is no safety for you here, Trisa. Only across those pylons can you survive. Perhaps if they had forgotten about you it would be different, but they didn’t.”
Trembling, I say the words I had wanted to say since I realized where Salai had been taking me.
“Come with me, Salai. Come with me to Illesh.”
His eyes answered before his lips, which did not lessen my hurt any.
“I cannot, Trisa. I cannot.”
He wasn’t lying. The tilt of his shoulders, the slump of his back—all of it mirrored my crushing disappointment with his own.
“The road to Illesh closed for me a long time ago. There are sins I have yet to answer for. An atonement I have carried out in my life on this side of the border. As death awaits you here if you stay, death waits for me if I go with you.”
In that moment I hated his Kurmesh goddess—I hated the very notion of obeisance to a deity that adjudicated such unfairness.
“What use is a goddess if she thrusts such agonies on us?”
“She gives me strength to endure, Trisa.”
His eyes burned bright, and I realized that the truth of his words ran deep within him. I did not know yet whether I had such resilience underneath my skin.
“And the feelings we shared? What becomes of them now? What will I do with the things which grew in me?”
Unwilling to hear any answer he could give to my spite, I turned away from him and began to walk towards the border. Step after painful step I took, until I felt his hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to that first moment at the crossroads. I turned around as I felt his arms enveloping me, an intimacy we had never shared, that we would share only once.
Against my ear, his voice—
“Sometimes, Trisa, to love is to surrender.”
I felt the fierceness in his arms, the tender tremble underpinning his words, and I learned in that moment more than I had ever learned after my sentience began. I had never known such agony as I did when I pulled from his arms. Separating from him, walking over the unmarked line into safety, was harder than any of the snow-driven passes I had crossed to climb the spine. In sentience, I learned that even synth-metal bodies have hearts, and those hearts could break.
My feet across the border, on the soil of Illesh, I turned back one last time to Salai. I removed the adat from my face. In turn, breaking all the taboos of his people, he did so as well. The guards who saw his face didn’t matter. All that mattered was what passed between our eyes, in the prayer chamber of our hearts, a square scribed across borders, open to a divine sky.
Naru Dames Sundar is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and PodCastle. He lives among the redwoods of Northern California. You can find him online at http://www.shardofstar.info and on twitter at @naru_sundar.