If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough

(Content note: mentions of genocide)

 

“Baobao!”

The Protector-General’s fat little dog disappears around the corner. Aida, cursing, digs her heels into the ground and runs.

Baobao likes to chase after anything that moves. Usually Aida indulges him—it’s fun to see Baobao’s fat bum wiggle as he hops after squirrels he’ll never catch—but the sun is about to set, which means Aida is mere minutes from missing curfew, but she’s still nowhere near the Academy gates because what should have been a short trip to take the dog out for a shit has turned into half an hour of hide-and-seek because this stupid dog won’t listen.

Baobao!”

Aida glimpses a streak of white-and-orange in the dying light. Baobao’s headed to the forest. Aida runs faster, hoping she might catch him before he disappears into the trees. She’s too slow. She reaches the tree line just as Baobao darts into the forest. She skids to a halt. Her breath catches in her throat.

Fuck. She’s reached the miasma.

The violet fog lies waiting in the dense thicket of trees—a thick, roiling mist that seems to pulse in tune to her heartbeat. She can see tendrils of it reaching for her toes. It’s curious, probing, inviting her to come in to play. It nudges forward, straining against the boundary. Aida jumps back. Her heart hammers against her ribs.

She can see the tops of Baobao’s ears just feet behind the bushes. The miasma doesn’t hurt animals—they don’t even notice it—but it is deadly to humans. Aida knows this well. She’s seen the miasma kill many times. Every year, the Instructors bring the students of the Academy of the Protectorate down the hill to the forest and forces them to watch as Mainland guards march a prisoner on death row to the forest’s edge for a public execution.

The prisoners always try to delay the inevitable. They scream against the cloth rags jammed in their mouths. They strain so hard against their escorts that they often dislocate their shoulders. Some go limp to force the guards to drag them forward, inch by inch, into the waiting purple. They never escape. Soldiers wearing gas masks thrust them forward into the forest, hold their arms in place until their air runs out and they take their first breath. Then the miasma rushes down their throat, turns their veins in their cheeks blue and their limbs black, shrivels their skin like they’ve aged a hundred years in mere seconds, and pushes their bulging eyes out of their skulls.

Don’t fuck with the miasma. Every year, the Instructors remind the vomiting students. It’s a lesson well learned, and a lesson that keeps them enclosed within a mile of the school. Because the miasma is everywhere, lurking in all of the shadowy corners of Oramosi Island, shrouding its forests, ravines, and graveyards.

But it stays put. The miasma doesn’t harm you until you approach, and you’d have to be a fool to go anywhere near it.

Aida stands torn, trapped between her fear of the miasma and the Protector-General’s whip.

“Baobao.” Her voice cracks in terror. “Baobao, come back, please.”

She can just make out the dog’s pudgy shape disappearing further into the undergrowth. Ten paces away. How far can she run in one breath? Far enough to that tree and back?

Fuck this.

She sucks in a deep swallow of air, closes her mouth tight, and sprints.

The world turns purple. Aida pushes through a forest veiled in a thick cloth of thick noxious clouds that pulsate around her. She squints and makes a beeline for Baobao, trying to ignore how the clouds look like they are taking human shape.

Ghosts solidify before her.

Aida halts.

The closest ghost drifts towards her. The details of his face form by the second, like a sculptor is working at rapid speed to carve them out. A blur of mist becomes a young man’s face with arching eyebrows and a cruel smile; the smoke of his torso turns into a military uniform she doesn’t recognize, a jacket adorned with commander’s stripes.

“Hello.” The Commander smiles, baring teeth. “Don’t run. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Aida almost screams.

Almost. But she is a trained cadet of the Academy of the Protectorate-General. Her mind traces lessons etched there by ink and blood. Seek reason. Force clarity. Suppress your base impulses. And when faced with the natural human instinct, to fight or to flee, always choose to dominate.

She knows that she can fight anything. She knows that the unknown enemy always becomes weak when you strip away its mystery.

She speaks without a tremble. “What are you?”

An amused ripple passes through the miasma. Aida grips her dagger, anticipating in an attack, though she doesn’t know what steel would do to smoke.

She doesn’t expect the Commander to start singing.

Jinru la wuzhong

Sianwu la siwang

It’s a children’s lullaby, a silly and hauntingly nostalgic tune, and it incapacitates her more effectively than a blow to the head.

Guika bu siusi

Yongga bu siusi

Aida sways on her feet. She feels yanked out of her own body; she couldn’t move her legs if she tried. The forest spins to the rhythm of the song. They’re words she could almost say and almost understand, and she has the strangest feeling that she could almost sing along.

“I know that.” She can’t stop herself from murmuring. “Why do I know that?”

“Why do you think?” asks the Commander.

She lets herself look at him, to really look at him. She knows she has never seen his face but still she finds something familiar there—something in his long nose, deep-set eyes and long lashes, an assortment of features terrifyingly similar to what she sees in the mirror every day.

Then she realizes something else.

She has drawn breath. She has been breathing for some time now, and she stands within the miasma entirely unaffected.

The fundamental creed of the Academy of the Protectorate-General is transcendence.

The Academy’s Oramosi students are taught to recite this creed from youth. It runs in their blood. Transcend the base origins from whence you came. Transcend the guttural sounds of your native tongue and learn to speak proper Mainlander, smooth and sharp. Transcend the squalid habits of your birth family and daily cleanse yourself, daily dress in your starched Academy uniform no matter despite the sweltering hot beat of the noon sun.

They are orphans, all of them, the last vestiges of a race so wretchedly barbaric that it died quickly and horribly of plague, but the Academy of the Protectorate-General has delivered them from the future fate would have dealt them.

Their saviors from the Mainland charge them to transcend.

Become what the Empire has allowed you to be.

In this Aida excels. She is the pride of the Academy, head of her class, darling of her instructors, and an assumed favorite for entrance to the Commander’s School on the Mainland next year. Aida does not simply perform, she shines.

But not today.

At school she stumbles dazed through the squeaky-clean hallway corridors. Her mind is trapped in the memory of yesterday, dissecting incredulous details that still feel like vivid dreams—the friendly ghosts who called her little sister, who helped her find that stupid dog, who guided her through a shortcut in the forest so that she could dash through the Academy’s front gates only ten minutes after curfew.

She wonders if she hallucinated the entire encounter. But if so, then why does she still have the refrain of a melody she once knew stuck in her head.

What were the ghosts’ names? How did they die? Are they all Oramosi? The ghosts didn’t say; she’d had such little time that she never asked. Today, she is counting down the seconds until she can return to the forest, until she can get her answers.

Because of this she is still distracted when Instructor Sieuw calls upon her to lead a recitation. Instead of uttering the first catechism of the Mainland Emperor’s declarations she instead looks up and asks: “Why doesn’t the miasma affect the Oramosi?”

Instructor Sieuw stares at Aida as if she’s suddenly sprouted a third eye. “No one can survive the miasma.”

“The Oramosi can,” Aida says.

“That is nonsense.”

“They can. Everyone in this classroom can but you. They’ve just never tried.”

Instructor Sieuw crosses the room until she stands dangerously close above Aida’s desk. “What gave you that idea?”

I survived the miasma, Aida almost says, then stops herself. She can’t give an answer that doesn’t lead to further punishment. She was stupid, careless, and now she’s trapped.

Instructor Sieuw repeats her question.

“I don’t know,” Aida murmurs. Heat rises in her cheeks; titters sound across the room. “I just—I heard a story.”

“A story,” Instructor Sieuw repeats. “From whom?”

“I don’t—I don’t remember. It might have been a book. I might have dreamed it.”

Instructor Sieuw arches an eyebrow. “Whatever you heard is wrong.”

Aida dips her head. “Yes, Instructor.”

“And if you should remember who told this story, or where you formed this impression, you will report it to me.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

Too late Aida has realized her mistake: that probing is dangerous.

Her hand still stings from three unhealed lashes, the mildest punishment for breaking curfew. Instructor Sieuw adds three more, taking care to reopen the same wounds so that they  hurt double, and extracts a promise from Aida to never speak of the miasma again.

Aida cradles her bleeding hand and conceals her lingering doubt.

It’s a painful thing, questioning.

“You’re back,” says the Commander.

“It wasn’t easy,” Aida says. “They shut the gates after sundown and they keep dogs on the perimeter.”

“Then how did you get out?”

“I’m clever,” Aida says. “And I’m good at climbing.”

The Commander smiles. He looks so terribly young when he smiles, and Aida realizes with a start that he can’t have been much older than her when he died.

“I want to know who you are,” she says.

“But you know who we are,” he says.

She struggles to find the right way to phrase her question. How do you trace the contours of what you don’t know? “Then I want to know how you lived.”

His expression is curiously sad. “Haven’t you ever met any elders?”

“The only Oramosi I know are my age. We were all raised in the Academy. Our Instructors are all Mainlanders and they won’t tell us anything. They said it’s best that we forget.”

“So the erasure was complete,” says the Commander. “They stole everything from you.”

“Then tell me what they stole,” Aida says.

“I can do better than that.” He drifts towards her, so close that she can’t tell her breath in the evening chill from his smoke. “I can show you. If you’ll let me.”

“What do you mean?”

He surges forward. For a moment Aida thinks he’s attacking her but then she realizes he’s in her, superseded over her, a ghostly cloud surrounding her mortal body. She can feel the weight of his soul, can hear his thoughts like a voice in her own head.

And she sees memories too, little flickers of things—sights of the ocean unshrouded by purple miasma, of a blue and open sky, of a crowd full of people who look just like her.

“Can I show you?” he asks.

“Please,” she says.

A thousand different sensations hit her all at once. The Commander brings her into the memory of a busy night market under a starry sky. Fragrances waft and mix between noisy stalls, far louder and dirtier than the Mainland Government, with its endless health codes and license regulations, ever would have permitted. Aida hears hot oil sizzling beneath an assault of loud friendly chatter from every direction, phrases of a language that she doesn’t know and once knew, syllables that reverberate in her bones and leave her on her knees, gasping.

She can’t breathe.

The Commander recedes from her body. The memory fades to nothing.

“Too much?” he asks.

Aida sucks in a deep, desperate breath. “There were so many of you.”

“Of us,” the Commander says gently. “Yes. I see that might be hard for you to understand.”

“Can I see something else? Something—quieter?”

The Commander is silent for a moment. Then: “Try this one.”

The Commander’s miasma envelopes Aida again. She hears the sound of gurgling river water; she looks down and sees her feet—no, the Commander’s feet, dipping naked into the cool water. He’s sitting with a family of four. Lunch is spread out on the rocks—bright red fruits that Aida can’t name and stacks of egg and oyster pancakes, pungent and chewy.

“Are those your parents?” Aida asks. She can’t stop staring at their smiling faces. She can’t shake the feeling that she has seen this before, or at least something very like this.

“Yes,” says the Commander. “They died in the first year of the disasters.”

Something stirs inside Aida, a gut-wrenching feeling that she can’t recognize.

“Show me more,” she says.

The world spins and changes. A quiet night, still outside under the open sky save for the drone of crickets. The moon hangs fat and heavy, its soft light glinting off the edge of a blade that traces slow, elegant patterns through the night air. In this memory the Commander is only a child; sword hilt shaking in tiny fingers, sweat dripping from his temples as he performs under an old woman’s watchful eye.

“Faster,” says the woman.

The child obeys, grunting as he traces patterns that he still only barely understands, toiling to carve characters out of nothing.

“That’s the old sword form,” Aida says. “They showed us something like that in class.”

“What did they say?” asks the Commander.

“That your honored sword forms were no match for the weakest Mainlander soldier with a pistol in his hand.”

“But it wasn’t ever for fighting. We didn’t learn it for survival.”

“Then you should have,” Aida says. “You should have learned to defend yourself.”

The accusation in her voice surprises her.

The Commander is silent for a moment. Aida tenses, afraid that she’s lost him.

Then he murmurs, “We weren’t training to fight a war. Only the Mainlanders were.”

He draws her back out of the memory, slowly, so that she can gradually acclimate to the firm reality of the forest. Aida sits down on the cool grass; head spinning, heart aching. She doesn’t realize the tears are flowing at first, but then they’re surging out of her, salty and thick, and she lets herself weep for nostalgia for a future lost.

“It’s not fair,” she whispers. “The plague took away a whole world.”

“The plague?” the Commander repeats. “You think this was a plague?”

She stares at him blankly.

“Was this from a plague?” He points to his chest, where a blossoming stream of blood floods out from where his heart should be, suspended forever in the moment of impact.

“I didn’t see that,” Aida stammers.

“Then look harder,” he says. And she glances around the forest at the dead of the Commander’s regiment as old wounds reveal themselves; a crater in the side of one soldiers’ skull, a thick gash across another’s torso, a hole the size of a cannonball through the midriff of a third. They leer at her, the maimed faces of the war dead, and for the first time since meeting them she feels a proper, chilling fear.

“Plague victims can’t become miasma,” says the Commander. “Only soldiers. Only our warriors knew the art.”

“But miasma covers seventy percent of this island,” she says.

He gives her a long look, like a teacher appraising a very slow student. “Yes.”

Aida can’t stand the crawling minutes she’s forced to spend in class. She’s trapped with her thoughts, alone in a school full of Oramosi who don’t know what their life might have been like. When she passes her classmates in the halls she sees them at the night market, learning swordcraft under the full moon, fishing in the shallows with spears that only their mothers could make. And they look back with blank expressions, clutching their Mainlander textbooks to their chests, and she feels so terribly lonely.

She tolerates the day only so that she can return to her ghosts. Her worlds reverse. School becomes the dream-world, the hazy afterthought–and she lives for the moments she spends savoring the Commander’s memories.

She drifts like this for weeks, then months, until suddenly the term has ended and the Command School exams are looming in her face. She has been training for these since childhood. They are a grueling, five-day ordeal that tests knowledge of northern and southern Mainlander dialects, Imperial customs, Mainlander history, combat proficiency, stamina, pain tolerance, and endurance—everything that makes a fine Mainland Militia officer.

The exams are a public event, so two weeks before the Mainlander diplomats descend on Oramosi to see the graduating class in action, the Protectorate Instructors hold a series of mock trials to prepare their students.

Aida doesn’t know why she even tries. She comes dead last in every event. The Instructors post the scores on shiny white banners which hang over the staircase of the Great Room, and Aida has to cover her eyes with her hands every time she walks past for the sheer shame.

What’s wrong, ask her friends; what happened, asks her instructor. Aida offers mumbled excuses and hangs her head in contrition, but it’s hard to really care, to pull herself out of her daze until she receives a summons to the office of the Protector-General Lin Yu.

The entire school loves and fears Lin Yu. She is their mother and their guardian, their champion on the mainland. She founded and runs the school because she believes—has always believed—that the Oramosi can be saved from the circumstances of their birth. The students obey her every word because they want to prove her right.

The Protector-General is sitting behind her desk when Aida arrives to her office. “Hello, Aida. Please shut the door.”

Aida closes the door behind her and sits down across the Protector-General.

Lin Yu’s eyes linger on her face for a long time, as if searching for something. Then she sighs. “You understand the credo of this school, Aida.”

“Yes, General,” Aida says. “To transcend.”

“Which means what, precisely?”

Aida knows the answer by heart.  “To achieve beyond our strictures. To break the shackles of the handicaps we were born into. To prove that nurture may defy nature, to ascend to the ideals of the Emperor on the Mainland.”

Lin Yu nods. “Do you think transcendence is possible, child?”

“I do.”

Lin Yu leans forward. “Would it surprise you that this opinion is not widely shared?”

Aida hesitates. “General, I—”

The Protector-General cuts her off. “Many, if not most, on the mainland believe that your education is a hopeless endeavor. They believe that children from base origins cannot be made civilized, and that the funding for this academy is a waste of money. I have spent the last two decades of my life trying to prove them wrong.”

Lin Yu looks so disappointed. Aida feels a pang of guilt in her chest.

“I admit that I, too, had my doubts when I came to this island,” Lin Yu continues. “I saw the squalid conditions your ancestors lived in. There was a time when we doubted whether you could even learn our language. But you proved them wrong. Aida, you are marvelous. You have been marvelous for years. But you have just given your Mainland doubters the perfect ammunition to use against you.”

“General, I—”

Lin Yu cuts her off. “I understand quite well what you are going through. I know the last year can be difficult. I, too, was daunted by the prospect of Command School. It’s quite common for new officers to balk from the pressure, particularly when so many eyes are looking at you.”

Lin Yu rises from her seat, walks around her desk, and bends down towards Aida. She strokes her cheek; tucks a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. “But you don’t have the luxury of failure, my dear. The world’s opinion of your race hinges on your performance. Please do not disappoint.”

Aida resolves to study, to really try, but she cannot muster the will to stop frequenting the forest.

By now it has become an addiction. She needs the Commander’s memories like she needs air. By now, she knows his life now like she knows her own. She knows the beachside dwelling he grew up in; how he was raised amphibious, one foot always in the water, longing for the waves. She knows the explosion of flavor from his favorite spiced fruits, the warmth of his parents’ embrace, the pride he felt when he received his first spear.

In comparison her own life has been so sterile, so contained. She has been raised and educated within the confines of the Academy for a singular purpose. She has never known true excitement, true danger, true exhilaration—until she began inhaling freedom from a dead man’s memories.

She finds herself lingering over certain details. The cracking timbre of his voice.  The sheen of his muscles as he emerges from water. The way his face looks in a mirror, his practiced smile, trying to tease out the right combination of winning and genuine to flash later at the neighboring village’s girls.

She admits to herself that, for some time now, she’s been falling for the young Commander. He is so different from the boys at the Academy, in their nervous starched uniforms and uncooperative hair combed back with water and grease. She feels so distant now from all of her classmates; when she looks at them, all she can think about is how they’re trying to become something they’re not.

The Commander fully owns who he is. He refused to compromise who he was supposed to be and he died for it.

Her questions take a targeted pivot, and the Commander indulges.

“Did they court before the war?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“How would they do it?”

She knows it should be impossible, that ghosts have no substance, but she can almost feel his breath tickle her ear. “I would have come to your home with flowers in my hands. I would give one to your mother and one to your father. If they didn’t throw them on the ground, then I’d know I had permission.”

Her breath hitches in her throat. “And then?”

“I would take you out as your companion. Somewhere public; our elders still care about virtue. A bonfire. A festival.”

She smiles. “But?”

“We’d escape into the woods the first chance we got.”

Her voice sounds like someone else’s; deeper, husky with want. It’s unfamiliar and exhilarating. “And what would we do there?”

“I’ll show you,” says the Commander.

Aida finds a hand drifting towards her breast. The other to the place between her legs. Blood rushes to her cheeks. She tries to stop. But her hand keeps moving.

“Are you doing this?” she whispers.

Shhh,” he murmurs. “Let me in. Can I?”

“Yes,” she says, hesitantly at first, then again. “Yes.

The Commander takes over.

She feels just a moment of sheer, desperate pleasure; the hand on her breast becomes his hand, the fingers between her legs are his fingers, and she arches towards them, flushed with anticipation.

But just as abruptly the Commander removes her hands, pulls down her shirt, and stands up.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer. He pats her body down, as if checking for weapons; he finds the hunting knife and grips it in his fingers.

“No,” she says; but her body doesn’t obey, the word doesn’t even come out of her mouth because she can’t control her lips. She can only think at him, and hope he hears. What are you doing?

“Give me an hour,” says the Commander. His voice is clipped, detached; utterly unlike how he sounded just seconds ago.

This is my body!

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

He strides towards the edge of the forest, towards the Academy. Aida bangs against the walls of her mind, fighting to wrestle back control. But nothing works, nothing responds, and she can only watch, dizzy and horrified, as her own hands search her body for a gun and, when they don’t find one, rip a branch from the nearest tree instead.

The thoughts flooding through her head, his mind, reek of bloodlust and fury and destruction and despair. She understands where he is going. The Commander intends to burn her world down.

She screams as loudly as she can without a voice. Get out of my body!

He ignores her.

She rails against his dead spirit. She can feel how badly he wants to be alive; how he relishes feeling her heartbeat, the scrape of bark against her skin, the dry rooftop of her mouth. But this is her body, her life, and he doesn’t have the right—

She surges against his essence, forces him into a battle of wills—

She wins. “Get out!”

He ejects in a burst of purple, a formless cloud that drifts several feet away and then rearranges itself into a body, a head, a face with features that look entirely unapologetic.

She wants to slap him, but the only way to make him feel it would be to slap herself.

Instead she spits with rage.

“That’s what you wanted,” she hisses. “You wanted a body again, so you brought me here, tried to seduce me–”

His left lip curls up. “Oh, you didn’t take much seducing, my dear.”

“What would you have done?”

“Strolled into your precious academy and put a bullet through your Protector-General’s face,” he says simply.

She gawks at him. “That’s madness.”

“Is it? Can you really look that woman in the face, knowing what you know now, and not want to crack her neck between your hands?”

Yes, Aida thinks. The Mainlanders took the islander and stole her past, yes, but Aida can live in a Mainlander’s world—she could thrive, even, she could go to Command School…

She wants to survive. She wants to have her legacy and her future. She wants to have both. Why can’t she have both?

“This is not your choice,” the Commander says. “You owe this to us. Something like this was our last hope. We learned our craft to turn our bodies to the miasma when we died. We lingered for decades in our rotting bodies, we watched the years ticking away, we tethered our souls to mortal earth instead of joining our loved ones in the Great Nothing because we knew that you children were still alive and someday you could come find us.”

“But I wasn’t looking for you!”

“And yet you found us. Now everything is in place. Everything hinges on you, Aida—”

“That’s not fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” he snarls. “The war wasn’t fair. Duty isn’t fair.”

“I don’t have a duty to you.”

“Your only duty is to me. Or did you think you might become a cadet of the Mainlander Militia? Did you want to spend your life serving the people who slaughtered your parents because they pet you on the head and told you good job? They will never accept you into their ranks. They are lying to you. And you’re a fool if you think otherwise.”

He means for his words to cut. It almost works. But Aida is a trained cadet of the Academy of the Protectorate-General, and she knows how to close her heart to sentiment.

“You’re dead,” she says softly. “You’re gone. Stop trying to drag me down with you.”

He chases after her, rematerializes in front of her and tries to stop her, but she merely walks right through him until she’s reached the boundaries of the forest where his miasma is tethered. And he can’t do anything to pull her back because he is dead after all, and ghosts have no power except what they are given.

Aida fails the Command School exam.

Technically, she should have been sent straight to the labor camps, as are all academy graduates who disappoint. But all of her instructors feel that such a station is beneath someone like her, someone who is so talented and speaks such pitch-perfect Mainlander, and so the board decides to extend her education at the Academy another year so that she can try the exam again.

Aida understands she’s been offered a gift. And she desperately wants to blend back into life at the Academy, but she finds that she can’t.

Every word carries a weighty shadow; every lesson is sullied by the Commander’s admonition: they are lying to you.

The future she was crawling towards now seems so distant and irrelevant compared to a past that she cannot wipe from her memory.

So clever, the Command School’s veneer; its credo of transcendence to wipe away all memories of the past. Because transcendence demands a shedding like a cicada sheds its skin to fly away. But once the smallest crack has formed—and the crack in Aida’s mind is a gaping hole now—the whole thing crumbles, bit by bit, until the rotting foundations beneath scream to be discovered.

She waits until a night when the Protector-General will return to the mainland to make her report on the Academy. Aida is supposed to be on this trip—proof of the island’s best and brightest, touted about to the Mainland donors, but her rival will make the voyage instead.

Once Aida might have been bothered by this. Now it seems like the most trivial thing in the world.

That night she breaks into the Protector-General’s private library, where she knows the exhaustive archive of the Academy’s files are kept. This presents no trouble. Aida was once this school’s star student. She’s been trained for police service. She knows how to move silently in the dark and to pick a lock without looking.

Inside the library she rustles through shelves until she finds yellowed diaries dating back to just before the founding of the Academy–the Protector-General’s private notes. She holds a flickering candle to the page and starts to read.

It’s pages and pages of drivel on ore shipments, boat supplies, forest clearing techniques, and medical reports on the miasma. She flips faster, skimming as quickly as she can; she does not know when the Protector-General will return and the longer she stays, the slicker the sweat drips from her forehead.

Transcendence may be possible.

Aida stops. She returns to the top of the page and reads closely this time.

The doctors on the mainland state that children who have not passed their third birthday have not finished developing their neural pathways, so the opportunity exists to bring them up under a Mainlander curriculum. To rewire them, if you will. Under this advice our doctors have collected the children three or younger.

Aida tries to think back to her earliest memory of the Academy. Two. She can’t have been older than two.

So they took her from her parents. She knows this, she’s always known this. But what happens to the others? The children who weren’t younger than three?

She lowers the lamp to the page. The Protectorate-General’s scrawled handwriting burns into her eyes.

There is no hope for the elder children. They must die with their parents. Our virus weapons will weaken them. Our armies will take care of the rest.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” says the Commander.

“I didn’t either,” says Aida. She doesn’t know what to say next. She’s roiling inside; a dreadful mix of emotions, still sick from what she’s just read and what she now knows. She feels like a fool; a disgusted, deceived fool. “You should have told me what they did.”

“I did tell you.”

“But you didn’t tell me that they—that—”

“Oh,” says the Commander, “the children.”

“I had a brother,” Aida says. “A long time ago, so long I’d almost forgot, but—he was five, I think.”

“I’m very sorry,” the Commander says gently.

“You should have told me.”

“I thought you knew,” says the Commander. “You must have known. The evidence was all around you.”

Yes, Aida thinks, but there is a difference between knowing and wanting to believe.

“Was it a lie?” she asks.

He looks puzzled. “Was what a lie?”

She traces a finger over her cheeks. She needs this single indulgence; it will make the rest so much easier. “It felt for a moment like you really loved me.”

The Commander’s face falls. “I have been dead for fifteen years.”

“But did you love me?”

“You don’t have a future with me,” he said. “I can’t give you what you want.”

It’s not the answer she wanted, but it’s the only honest thing he can say. That’s all she needs to hear.

She opens his arms to him; an invitation. “I think you can.”

Dark falls across the Academy of the Protectorate on Oramosi. Sentries take their posts at its four towers and turn their eyes to the thick, misty forests.

Safely ensconced behind the school’s thick walls, half a mile’s elevation away from the nearest miasma zone, Protector-General Lin Yu sits at her desk and waits.

Aida’s file lays open on her desk.

How do you convince a crop of rescued children that they belong to your Empire? How do you prove to them, and to your own people, that they can assimilate?

You destroy every shard of their past. You wipe away any evidence of a world they might once have belonged to because the primary mission of nationalism is to convince all within it that the nation is all that was and all that ever will be.

Transcendence. The Academy of the Protectorate is founded on a wild optimism for this ideal. Lin Yu has spent her life fighting for that credo, and she has come so close.

But before she is finished, there is one thread she must tie away.

It’s a pity. The child was brilliant. Aida had startled the Instructors with her quick grasp of Mainlander, her rapid adaptation to rules of etiquette. She drank in the Academy’s teachings like she was parched; an empty vessel, primed for re-education. Aida should have passed the Command School test with flying colors.

She has been missing now for two days.

Protector-General Lin Yu knows what has happened. The child has escaped for the mist.

It happens once every year. They run away, thinking the wild island can give them something the Academy can’t. They inevitably end up dead, their bodies blue and bloated, thudding mindlessly against the rocks.

Usually it’s the helpless cases–the ones that rebel against the instructors, not the ones that thrive. That it was Aida is a tragedy. The girl could have been the Academy’s greatest achievement, but now she’s been tainted by the past.

Lin Yu feels a sting of disappointment she imagines must be similar to how mothers feel.

The door creaks open.

“Aida.” Lin Yu can’t conceal her surprise. “What are you doing here?”

The girl steps into the light. And then she is two people, not one.

Lin Yu sees past her; an apparition from another time, a face she last saw when she struck it down on the battlefield. She still remembers the pistol smoke, the crack echoing across the forest.

You,” she whispers.

“Me,” answers Commander Wong Jaisin.

Then Lin Yu understands. The trips to the forest, the constant questions. The girl has been trained in a graveyard. The girl is Commander Wong’s arrow shot through from the past.

But how?

Lin Yu scrambles for the pistol in her desk. But she knows she will not be fast enough. She knows a struggle will be pointless, because Aida was trained too well to enter a fight without a plan to win it within seconds.

Lin Yu taught her that. Lin Yu has forged her own axe of execution.

Aida and the Commander calmly raise their first. An orb of miasma swirls around their curled fingers. Lin Yu watches it, unable now to suppress her fear. How long can she hold her breath? Long enough to run to the door?

“I killed you,” Lin Yu breathes.

“You didn’t kill all of us,” Aida says. The cloud swirls faster, grows larger. “And if you want to erase us then you must be thorough.”

L. Tu

L. Tu was born in China and now lives on the US east coast.

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