(Read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six!)
On the Slanted Satellite Base in the shadow of the moon, in an office filled with human-sized bubbles that contained office work spaces, a woman with a blue Mohawk, a scrawny gentleman who seemed perpetually tense, and a woman with antennae in a business suit spoke quietly amongst themselves while an elderly woman in an orange jumpsuit sat nearby, daydreaming of how it would feel to be a bubble.
After Ramona and Gabe had wrapped up their private discussion with Milanda, Ramona returned to Agnes, who was still patiently sitting at Ramona’s desk, and told her that the two of them were now going to try to see Senga while Gabe stayed at the office and got to work on a couple special projects.
“What’s the special project?” Agnes asked, curious.
Ramona bit her lip and squinted, patting the top of her Mohawk rather subconsciously. “Ehhhh, I’m not really supposed to tell you.”
For a moment, Agnes felt a little offended. “Why not?” she asked.
Ramona shrugged, and picked up her tablet from her desk. “A lot of what we do here is confidential; we swear discretion when we’re hired, because it can be a matter of security.” Ramona drew her finger across the tablet and her office bubble began to slowly distance from Milanda’s office bubble.
“Nice meeting you!” Milanda called and waved to Agnes, as the bubbles withdrew from each other and formed separate enclosures. Gabe, still standing near Milanda and her desk, nodded at Agnes with what looked like a friendly smirk, the most affectionate display of emotion she had yet received from him. Agnes lifted her right hand and gave a lofty wave back to Milanda and Gabe.
“Wow, Gabe must really like you,” Ramona chuckled. “You got a smirk!”
As Ramona’s office bubble began to lower, passing by others’ bubbles as it did so, Agnes asked more about Gabe’s special project, prying for more information.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Agnes, it’s just that, as Slanted Soldiers, we obey a code. I’ve already told you a lot today, because it’s mostly common knowledge and I thought it would help you understand us better.” Ramona looked at her wrist watch; the screen lit up and Ramona’s mouth smiled widely. “Hey! Awesome. Senga just got back to me and said she’s free for the next half-hour. We’re going to drop in to her office to say hi.”
Ramona’s bubble landed on the floor, and the two of them squeezed out of it the same way they had entered. Once they stepped away from it, the floor opened beneath the bubble and it dropped out of sight, for storage until Ramona summoned it once again. Then Ramona dramatically waved at the room full of bubbles and fellow Slanted Soldiers, and the pair exited the office and emerged back out to the hallway.
As they walked along the corridor, Ramona restraining her long stride so that Agnes could keep up, Agnes began to wonder about Ramona’s personal life. Until then, she had seen Ramona as a sort of cosmic figure, with no creation and no end, but someone who more or less rescued her from a peril she hadn’t even realized existed. It never occurred to Agnes to consider where Ramona came from, because for most of the past day, she was so focused on obtaining answers about Slantia and the Slanted Soldiers’ mission.
“Um, Ramona? May I ask you some personal questions?” Agnes asked, somewhat timidly. She was also ill-equipped at befriending others; her entire career, she had been sternly dissuaded—-well, let’s call it what it was: forbidden—-from fraternizing with co-workers, who were the only other people she interacted with outside of the short commute to work. Was it appropriate to know where people were born, especially people who lived on satellite bases in space?
Ramona responded with a cavalier wave of the hand. “Sure, fire away,” she said.
“Were you born… I mean, can you tell me a little about, like, who you were? I mean, like, where you come from? Your past… ?” Agnes suddenly felt really awkward and wasn’t sure how she should ask the question—-and wasn’t even sure what she was asking. Or where to start.
Ramona let out a “Ha!” then nodded understandingly. One of the things Agnes enjoyed about Ramona was all her random laughter.
“You want to get to know me! That’s sweet.” Ramona was quiet as they walked for a moment, the echo of their footsteps reverberating in both directions. “Well, if you really want to know about me… It’s a good stretch of hallway until we get to Senga’s, so we probably have enough time. Especially at your pace.” Ramona winked, and Agnes shook her head in friendly exasperation at Ramona’s teasing.
“Yes, I’d like to know,” Agnes confirmed. She craved to know, now.
Ramona had been born of a human and an alien human. Her father, Lebanon, was a citizen of Spinen, a small country off the coast of Slantia. Spinen was a beautiful, organic nation that had some of the technological conveniences of the modern times, but predominantly opted for the old-fashioned ways of farming and living in small communities. Her father himself was a farmer, and maintained a luscious expanse of land that locals visited to read, meditate, and congregate, as well as picked their own fresh produce. It was a loving, giving community and Lebanon was known for his big heart and bountiful generosity.
Because of Spinen’s close proximity to Slantia and its nondescript size, it was an ideal location for the Slanted Soldiers base; although Spinen was a peaceful island, they had long resented Slantia for its industrial pollution that leaked out towards Spinen, and its countless attempts to try to impose its will over Spinen. Thus, Spinen formed an alliance with the Slanted Soldiers who swore to protect Spinen in exchange for a small chunk of land that they could use as a base for their Slanted operations, such as spying on the Slantian government and monitoring its naval activity.
Ramona’s mother was a Slanted Soldier. Although Inerva looked mostly human, she was from a neighboring galaxy that had long ago visited Earth and brought back a batch of humans, with whom they reproduced and thus altered their genetics for millennia. Inerva was very politically involved in her home planet of Mewdo, and as a young woman, became interested in the study of Earth, a troubled planet whose societies were rapidly crumbling due to the corrupt powerhouse of Slantia.
Fatefully, Inerva left Mewdo to become an activist for the Slanted Soldier cause, which had been recruiting help from multiple galaxies. After hardcore training and working her way up the ranks over the years, she eventually became stationed in Spinen, where one day, while perusing the local gardens, ran into Lebanon, who charmed her with his firm confidence and tender kindness. He was a built man, from the physical labor of taking care of the land, and had a large beard and long, curly hair. His skin was browned and his eyes were careful, and he too, was charmed by Inerva’s commanding disposition and radiant beauty. Although she was human, she still bore the resemblance of her Mewdo people: three dull horned lumps upon her head, in a line formation, as though a Mohawk made of cartilage beneath her flesh. These horns protruded among her long, curly brown hair, which she often wore braided down her back. Lebanon was enthralled by her many adventures, and the pair quickly became good friends, watching the sunset together from his gardens, both of them an immaculate human expression of the balance of power and peace.
Their romance was passionate and unstoppable, and Ramona was soon born. She stayed with her father at his house among the gardens, and Inerva would stay with them whenever she had time off from her Slanted Soldier obligations. Ramona was so loved, and as a young girl she ran among the heavenly paradise of Spinen’s ever-growing greenery, entangling herself among the vines and smelling deeply the perfume of the flowers.
Inevitably, this fantasy was soon obliterated by Slantia’s merciless greed. Having so fiercely regulated reproduction, Slantia was now experiencing a shortage of labor; they had more production to complete than bodies to do the work. Every citizen of Slantia was either assigned a career or terminated, so that every person had their use; however, this backfired on them, and in a desperate attempt to grow their empire, they began raiding less fortunate countries and capturing children. Slantian soldiers slaughtered adults—-they were too old, and couldn’t be brainwashed the same way that children could. The Slantian soldiers burned villages, pillaged communities, ravished the land, destroying everything except the children, whom they threw into cages and shipped back to Slantian training camps, so that all that was left behind them was a nation of ash.
Spinen was one of these victims. Despite the resistance that the Slanted Soldiers put up, they could not stop the sheer force of the Slantian ambush. They called for backup, but by the time backup arrived, the small island of Spinen was an island of fire, and only burning corpses left to save. Both of Ramona’s parents were casualties in this massacre.
Ramona, who had borne the same dull horns as her mother, was subjected to the painful procedure of removing this unique physical trait. The Slantians sanded down her head, violently dulling down her own bone formations so that her head was perfectly rounded like Earth’s humans. Her scalp healed graphically, blotchy scars coating her head, and she frequently experienced excruciating migraines and phantom pains from where she once had feeling. Ramona was thrown into the training camps with the rest of the kids, and learned the same rigorous, distorted lessons that Slantia preached: Slantia is savior and hard work is godliness. Long live the Slantian Empire! She was manipulated to believe that Slantia had saved her from a horrific fate in an evil native land.
Having been thoroughly brainwashed, when she graduated from training school, she enlisted in the Slantian Army. She fought for the great cause of Slantia, obeying orders and protecting the world from treacherous heresy and carrying out the noble mission of her nation. She traveled the world, fighting heroically battles much bigger than she understood, with the power and might that her mother used to.
Until one operation, where she was based in the former Spinen, now renamed Slanten, a territory of Slantia. By chance, she encountered a man who recognized her goddess-like stature; Ramona was tall and built, and towered above other humans. This local, who had lived tucked away in an underground bunker and emerged only for water and vegetation—-which had regrown several years after its destruction, and after his underground food supply had run out—-risked his life to tell Ramona the story of Spinen. She listened horrifically, and at the end, was enraged by his fairy tale and murdered this local for slandering Slantia. But the information oozed doubt into everything she had learned, and Ramona began to question.
Soon after, Ramona was captured by Senga’s team. They had been monitoring Spinen from a distance, and recognized Ramona as the local had recognized her. Senga affirmed the local man’s story, and Ramona wept and shouted for days after this was revealed to her, grieving and unleashing her anger simultaneously. Senga and her team gave Ramona her space to cope, and comforted her when she needed friendship. At the end of the week, Ramona had reconciled her stolen life and swore to avenge her parents by dedicating her life to the Slanted Soldier army. Slantia’s rule would end, she vowed.
Ramona ended her story here, and waited for Agnes to comment. They had nearly reached Senga’s office, and so Ramona concluded her tale, so as not to delve further into her Slanted Soldier operations and begin a new chapter of her history. They would have time to discuss this later.
Throughout Ramona’s story, Agnes had gasped, exclaimed, and groaned at various parts, but now, Agnes was speechless. Her silence was emphasized by the sound of strangers’ footsteps passing by them in the hallway.
Agnes felt amazed by this grand story, and awed by Ramona’s incredible perseverance, at the same time depressed by the tragedy of her parents’ cruel and untimely death. Her resentment for Slantia swelled, and she wondered how many other lives were ultimately destroyed by this one country’s obstinate greed.
“So, I admire Senga a lot. I always say she’s the one who saved my life,” Ramona added, quietly. She had stopped in front of a door with gold plating that displayed Senga’s name in beautiful script. Ramona for the first time looked almost solemn, longingly, and softly wrung her hands together, gazing at them. A lock of her curly, lush blue hair fell across her face.
“Well, I admire you a lot,” Agnes finally said, her voice cracking, as she stopped beside Ramona. Ramona tilted up her head slightly, and looked at Agnes earnestly. Agnes continued, “I mean it, Ramona. You’ve endured so much, and look at you now. The closest thing to a goddess I’ve ever seen.” Agnes pressed her thin lips together, feeling moved by her budding feeling of love for her friend Ramona.
Ramona exhaled, and her eyes fell to the shiny tile floor, then rose back up to Agnes. “Thank you, I appreciate you saying that,” Ramona gently said. “I used to think about my past all the time. Every day it would fuel me, motivate me to push myself to insane lengths. I don’t think about it very often anymore, though; it’s sad, but it’s in the past. You know? It can’t hurt me anymore. We can’t control what happened to us before, but we can control what we do right now.”
And then an impulse overcame Agnes. Before she even had time to consider what she was about to do, she threw her arms around Ramona and squeezed her tightly, pressing her soft, wrinkled cheek into Ramona’s chest. Agnes could feel Ramona’s laugh reverberate against her, and then Ramona’s strong arms embraced Agnes in return. They held this for a moment, and then let go.
“Thank you, Ramona. You are so inspiring. I have learned so much from you.” Agnes smiled, shaking her head. “Who would have ever thought I could learn something from someone less than half my age and with a purple Mohawk? And a rebel, on top of all that!”
The two of them giggled away the sentimental tears they felt rolling in, and soon they were just smiling at each other, Agnes looking up at Ramona and Ramona looking down at Agnes.
“So, we’ve probably got only a few minutes left of Senga’s free time, so we better go take advantage of that,” Ramona said, cutting back to business. She glanced at the screen on her watch and pursed her lips.
Agnes nodded, not wanting this moment of intense connectedness to end, but glad that they had shared this all the same. She repeated her realization again: Ramona, my friend. It felt so satisfying to have a friend, after a lifetime of loneliness.
Then, Ramona smiled brightly at Agnes, and opened the door to Senga’s office.
Read more in Part VIII coming out next Friday!
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