I Fuel the Great Machine: Part VIII

(Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven!)

After breaking several of the Great Slantia’s laws and abandoning a lifetime dedicated to its success by allowing an enemy of the state to kidnap her by boarding a space ship and traveling to a secret rebel base satellite located in the shadow of the moon, Agnes, our formerly unsuspecting retiree protagonist, stood at the door which led to her twin sister, whom she had no idea existed until earlier that day. And she didn’t quite know how she felt about this.

Ramona opened the door and the pair stepped into a small waiting room, which looked surprisingly Earthly to Agnes. Whereas most of what she had witnessed so far on this Slanted Satellite Base was fantastical and inspired, unlike the compartmentalized and practical nature of Slantia’s architecture, this waiting room to Senga’s office was actually quite ordinary to her. It had four whole walls and a low ceiling and a floor, a square-shaped room with a couple wooden benches and a few tablets on a coffee table, for light reading Agnes supposed, and then a screen on the far wall, which Ramona approached.

“We’re here!” Ramona announced to the screen, which leapt from its screensaver mode to a video chat with a woman who had a buzzed haircut.

The woman’s face lit up and she said, “Hello Ramona! I’ll open it for you.”

There was also a doorway to the left of the screen, and after the woman said this, it slid open automatically, and Ramona beckoned Agnes to follow her through it with a jerk of her head.

This space was a little more what Agnes expected. It was a large room, with a tall, bright ceiling, and a long wooden meeting desk stretching across the center. It wasn’t a particularly wide room, just large enough to comfortably fit the meeting desk and a few other small pieces of furniture, like a cupboard upon which a refrigerator sat, and a coat rack in the corner. The desk had some tablets spread out on it and a few office gadgets, but mostly what they seemed to be working on was projected onto screens scattered throughout the room. These screens—-which were images of maps, spreadsheets of data, charts of arrows and numbers, diagrams of elaborate mechanical blueprints—-were floating around the perimeter of the room like holographic projections of screens, except they were entirely independent of a base or a projector. The environment in this meeting room was welcoming; the chairs around the table were cushiony and plush, several plants were casually placed throughout the room, such as at the center of the table, its vines spilling out of the pot onto the surface, and there were framed pictures on the walls of groups of people smiling and stunning galactic scenery. Music played cheerfully, an instrumental tune that jived and grooved.

And around the table, there were three people standing and leaning over the desk, including the woman who had buzzed them in. They were each wearing casual clothing, unlike the Slanted soldier button-up uniform that Ramona and many others around the satellite base wore; their clothing was more like t-shirts and sweaters, and stretchy pants.

“Ramona! Welcome back!” they all greeted, and then noticed Agnes and smiled to her as well.

“Hey! I missed you all!” Ramona said, smiling so wide that her eyes squinted. She waved at them with both her hands energetically, then must have realized she wanted a warmer greeting and made her way around the table hugging each of them. When she was finished, she wandered back over to Agnes and put a hand on Agnes’s shoulder as she introduced each person.

“This is Camilla”—-Ramona gestured towards the woman with the buzzed head, who was tall by Agnes’s standards but still not as tall as Ramona, and who had dark brown skin and large, beautiful dark eyes—-“and this is Heilly”—-a woman with milky white flesh nodded, whose voluminous, long seaweed-colored hair actually floated about her, as though gravity were optional to it, and whose face was long and narrow—-“and Carben”—-last, Ramona pointed towards a man who looked similar to the species of alien Ramona described as who she descended from; he was as tall as Ramona, strong, and had three dull sequential horns running back down his head, and he had no hair, and a gentle gaze.

“And everybody…” Ramona grandly presented Agnes to them, her arms widely framing this short, stout woman, “This is Agnes!”

They politely exchanged versions of “Nice to meet you,” and Agnes repeated their names in her head, willing herself to keep track of all the names she had learned that day. Never had she met so many people so personably in one day!

To Agnes, Ramona turned and commented, “Camilla, Heilly, and Carben are a part of Senga’s team. They all work closely to develop strategies and investigate further secrets hidden within Slantia’s complex web of corruption. Just know that if you repeat anything you hear in this room or divulge anything you see on these screens, you’ll either be assassinated by a Slanted soldier for endangering our mission, or assassinated by Slantia itself for knowing any of this.” Ramona smiled after saying this, but Agnes didn’t feel any impulse to smile back after hearing that there was a possibility she could be murdered for what she knew.

Camilla noticed the look on Agnes’s face and burst in, with a nervous laugh, “Oh, Ramona speaks of assassination so lightly! She just means that what we do is very high-stakes, and now you’ve sort of found your way into the middle of it. Just be very, very careful, is all,” she sweetly said, moving her hands about as she spoke.

“I’m sort of learning that,” Agnes replied nervously, then feeling a little more relaxed as she took a deep breath.

“Basically, you can’t be careful enough,” Carben added, lowering himself into a chair and taking a seat. “If you’re ever not sure if something is supposed to be confidential or not, err on the side of silence.”

Ramona nodded, turning to Agnes. “Plus, I have a feeling that Senga is going to want to let you in on even more Slantia soldier secrets, so…”

Agnes looked questioningly and asked, “Really?”

Ramona shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Yes, well you are her sister, after all, and she’s very excited to share all this with you. I mean, I would never tell you some of this stuff because I took an oath, but since she’s the commander, she can do whatever she wants I guess.” The cavalier manner in which Ramona spoke of Senga made it very apparent the two of them had formed a very close relationship.

“Senga’s actually just in the other room,” Camilla offered, pointing to the door on the far right of the room. “She told us just to send you through.”

“Thanks!” Ramona chirped, and strutted towards this door. Agnes followed, as usual, and gave a shy wave to Camilla, Heilly, and Carben, who smiled and then resumed the project they had been working on, turning their heads back together and their attention back to the screens.

—-

The wide door slid open when it sensed Ramona’s approach and Ramona and Agnes stepped into what looked like a living room.

Senga was seated in a recliner with her feet propped up, and tossed the tablet she was studying to the side when she saw Ramona and Agnes enter.

“Ramona!” she cried, and jumped up to hug Ramona. The two women shared a tight embrace, and then Senga quickly moved to Agnes, who stood before her somewhat hollowly and awkwardly. “Agnes…” Senga said sentimentally, eyeing Agnes intensely, looking her up and down before going in for a hug as well. Senga’s arms constricted Agnes firmly, and Agnes, after a second, brought her limp arms up to loosely hug Senga back. Why did she feel nothing upon seeing her own twin sister? Agnes asked herself. But what did she owe this woman?

“Sit down, sit down,” Senga implored, after pulling away from Agnes. She was still beaming, and took a seat back in her recliner.

Agnes sat down on the opposing couch, Ramona settling herself onto a cushiony, tall foot rest near the couch. This room was, like Ramona’s common space on the mother ship, teeming with plant life, much more than the occasional potted plant in the meeting room. There were several couches and the room had a cozy, intimate atmosphere with soft lighting by several lamps and the music from the next room similarly played in this one.

As Agnes studied Senga and let the room blur away, she began to materialize some meaning in this reunion. It was like looking into a fun home mirror, a warped version of herself; Agnes could see the shadow of herself in Senga, in her square jawline, in the long shape of her nose with the stubbed tip, in her twinkling crystal blue eyes, and the funny way her hair had a cowlick at the hairline.

And yet, she did not recognize Senga at all. Her short and toned build, her aged but tight face, her alert and confident gaze, all pointed towards her lifetime of experience, her trials and successes, her rigorous physical upkeep. In the training camps as a teenager, it had been repeatedly instilled in Agnes that vanity was wasteful and meaningless, and so despite her inner desire to be a beautiful woman, she had squashed that voice inside her all her life, succumbing to the notion that she would never be a beautiful woman, it would never be practical to be beautiful. Rather, she avoided her reflection in windows, loathed her body except what it was capable of in terms of labor and production, sank into her unspoken depression.

Now, seeing Senga, she felt crumpled. Senga was beautiful. Yes, she was old like she, but Senga was undeniably beautiful. And what shocked Agnes a little, was that Senga wasn’t beautiful like anyone else she had seen; she was not youthful, she had white hair just like they both did, and she was of the same physical foundation as Agnes. But the lives they had diverged upon since their conception together differed so drastically, and Agnes could see it marked upon her physicality that Senga had, despite the struggles, had a good life. She had turned out all right; in fact, she had turned out great.

Faced with this, Agnes wondered: Could my life had been like Senga’s, too? She did not know this woman, but she could only imagine that if someone like Ramona looked up to her so much, then Senga’s life was likely one brilliant adventure, full of conquests and achievements, and incredible progress towards liberating nations of suppressed peoples. Why was she the twin who was stuck in a factory for fifty years, washing dishes, and existing like a zombie? How was it that she turned out to be the wrinkled, overweight, poorly-postured version of the pair? While Senga got to be the twin who aged gracefully, glowed with life and health, her perfectly cut pixie hair-do, and wearing her golden variation of the Slanted soldier uniform. Why couldn’t that have been Agnes instead?

So before Senga had even said anything, Agnes had built her up so grandly in her head, that she now resented Senga for stealing this opportunity from her. Agnes began loathing herself in every capacity, regretting away her whole life.

“I’m very happy to meet you,” Senga said, smiling so kindly at Agnes in front of her, unaware of how envious Agnes was growing at the mere sight of her.

Agnes was quiet. She nodded; Ramona straddled the foot rest and watched silently the sisters’ meeting, like a wallflower moderator.

“Please make yourself at home, Agnes. I’ve wanted to invite you here ever since I learned I had a sister,” Senga continued, folding her hands in her lap, still gazing intently at Agnes.

Agnes still said nothing. She was stewing in her head, while her emotions built in her chest wickedly. She had no idea Senga would evoke such darkness in her, and fought to keep it contained. She looked away from Senga, and stared at her lap.

“You know, I can tell that we are twins!” Senga went on, her tone sounding more hesitant now at Agnes’s silence. “We have that same cowlick.” She pointed to her own hair line and chuckled with good nature.

Ramona shifted in her seat and the foot rest groaned a little.

“You must feel really good about meeting me,” Agnes finally said, quietly though. “I bet you feel pretty smug about yourself now.”

Senga sensed spite in Agnes’s words, and was surprised by this, although began to doubt if she was reading Agnes’s energy incorrectly; hoping she was reading Agnes’s energy incorrectly. “I’m—-I am happy to meet you, but I don’t know what you mean by that,” she struggled.

“What’s the matter, Agnes?” Ramona asked, frowning.

Agnes sighed and shook her head, looking around the room, exasperated. “I am sorry, I’ve had a long day. We’ve done a lot of traveling, Ramona and me, and I’ve met a lot of people and it’s been a lot of processing.” Agnes licked her lips and then asked seriously, “Why did you want to bring me here? What’s all this about? Did you just want to see how much of a failure I turned out to be, compared to you?”

Ramona gasped, and Senga was physically taken aback. “Agnes, I—-I don’t know what to say! Of course not!” Senga opened her mouth a couple times but wasn’t forming any words.

“You’re just a better version of me. You win,” Agnes practically spat, and then shook her head at herself and closed her eyes. She did not mean for all these thoughts to come spilling out, but now she was finding it hard to hold her tongue.

“Why are you being like this, Agnes?” Ramona asked softly, still staring in shock at Agnes’s cold disposition.

Senga held up a hand at Ramona, who sat back. Making eye contact with Agnes, Senga began to speak carefully. “Agnes, I’m really sorry that you feel like my intentions were cruel. I believe this is just a bad misunderstanding, because I would never describe you as a failure at all. Why do you feel like that?”

Agnes felt this question was so ridiculous that it was almost patronizing to make her answer it. “Because I’ve been some fool in a factory obeying a bunch of stupid rules my whole life so I could fuel the great machine! Then today, I figure out I’ve been complicit in the unspeakable crimes of my country—-” Suddenly, all the lies of Agnes’s past reality seemed to tumble upon her at once, as she began to break down at the foot of the repercussions of her life choices. “I just… My whole life I thought I was doing the right thing, being a good person, doing what I was told. And today, I’ve found out that I’ve wasted my one shot at living for a cause so evil that alien planets are learning about it in textbooks! And now I’m at the end of my life! How am I supposed to feel?” As these difficult feelings revealed themselves to Agnes, she began to cry.

Senga and Ramona stared at Agnes with wide, brimming eyes as Agnes put her face in her hands and exhaled. Ramona got up from her foot rest and sat beside Agnes, setting gently her hand on her shoulder. Agnes ignored Ramona and kept her face covered for a few moments, until Senga spoke and Agnes’s hands fell to her lap defeatedly, head hanging sadly.

“It’s not your fault, Agnes,” Senga said. She moved to the edge of her seat, leaning closer to Agnes. “You didn’t know. You can’t do anything about that.” Agnes looked up at Senga, pouting, face still wet. “But today, you’ve learned the truth, and look where you are. You’re with us, and we’re trying to make this whole thing better for everyone. It was really brave for you to take a chance and come here with Ramona, even though Slantia would have killed you for that. That’s not a failure at all to me! You should be proud of yourself.”

Agnes sighed, and Ramona nodded, rubbing Agnes’s shoulder in small circles with her hand. “Yes, but it just doesn’t feel like enough,” Agnes said. She frowned deeply and let her eyelids press together, a few more tears tracking down her textured face. She used the sleeve of her shirt to dab at her face.

Senga exchanged a troubled glance with Ramona, and then looked back to Agnes, concern wrinkled upon Senga’s face. “I’m so sorry, Agnes. But you have to believe that it is enough; you have to let yourself feel that you are inherently enough just by being who you are, which is a good person who was just misguided for a while. You can’t compare your life to mine, and you can’t compare your life to a version you wish you lived. That’s unfair to yourself.” Senga rolled her lips in and pressed them together, thinking intently. “Agnes, I am so excited to meet you and know you. Won’t you please forgive yourself, and accept my love?”

Ramona slid her hand across Agnes’s shoulders so that she was now sitting with her arm around Agnes in a sort of half-hug, gave a squeeze, and then retracted so she could look Agnes in the eyes. Slowly, Agnes brushed away her tears and calmed her breathing, before finally looking up at Ramona and Senga, who waited patiently for Agnes to gather herself.

“Senga,” Agnes started. “I am sorry.” She shook her head at herself. “And thank you. No one’s ever said such empowering words to me before.”

Senga nodded, smiling gently. “And now you can say them to yourself every day, now that you have them.”

“I’m not usually this emotional…” Agnes started again, sniffling.

Ramona moved back to sitting on her foot rest, to give Agnes a little space. She smiled as Agnes looked at her, then looked at Senga.

“It’s okay, we’ve unloaded a lot on you today,” Ramona commented sheepishly, biting her lip.

Agnes chuckled, which felt good. “That’s for sure. Any more life-shattering news to bestow upon me?” She was joking, but Senga now acted sheepish.

“Well…” Senga said. “Actually…” Agnes said nothing, but looked at Senga blankly, so she continued. “One thing you should know, Agnes, is that you are pretty special… I guess I’ll just explain it, so you understand completely. You’re not just another laborer, or ex-laborer, I should say. Our mother gave birth to us naturally, and our father secretly inducted us into the system, whereas everyone else was conceived in Petri dishes and grown in labs. This is a bit unnerving to learn, but Slantia fabricates its citizens with little, tiny mechanical nano-DNA so they’re not fully human.” Senga paused, squinting as she gauged whether or not Agnes understood the implications of this. “This means that most Slantians are part machine. They’re biologically more obedient than humans.” She paused again. “So, you were basically a human living among half-robots.”

Agnes, now fully dry from her emotional episode, asked, “But what’s the point of having robot citizens? Just so that they’d follow the rules better?”

Senga nodded slowly. “Yes, that, and, also, as we’ve recently discovered, it’s because Slantia is more than just a group of greedy Elites trying to gain power, money, and status. At the heart of Slantia’s evil existence is actually something much more sinister, and much more powerful than that. It’s an AI, an artificial intelligence. A relentless super-computer.”

As Agnes processed this silently, without moving, Senga and Ramona waited intently for her reaction.

“I fuel the great machine,” Agnes whispered, stunned. “The great… machine…”

“Not a metaphor after all,” Ramona commented flatly.

“What…”

“It means our task is trickier than we first thought, but not impossible still. We’ll just have to be smarter than the most intelligent piece of evolving data in the universe.” Senga suddenly let out a hearty laugh at this daunting idea, and before she knew it, Ramona was laughing with her.

“It’s so crazy!” Ramona squeaked between giggles, her nose crinkled.

Agnes stared in amazement, and then began to release some of her stress with a few hesitant laughs as well. “That’s terrifying,” she said.

Senga nodded, still chuckling, then let out a long, winding sigh. She looked around the room thoughtfully, at the greenery, and then at the two women before her, her eyes starting to distance themselves from her surroundings, lost in thought. Then, with gathered might, she resolved and boldly stated her rebellious intention.

“We’re gonna take down the great machine.”


Ready for Part IX? Visit back next Friday!

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