She honestly hated working here - there were at least a thousand more productive things she could be doing at the moment. Besides, wiping grimy beer glasses and pouring hard liquor wasn't really much of a mental workout, and her teachers had always told her intelligent minds were dangerous when bored.
But in any case, she thought her teachers were stupid.
Ever since Sanitarium took over everything in Sub-skies a couple of years ago, made their headquarters there, and then lifted everything else into the sky, they had begun relentless watering down collegiate-level intelligence. (Of course, you're working to preserve our mental health and all the progress we've made as an advanced society over the years. Damn propaganda.)
Frustrated, Arlenne wrung her towel out. She swept it under the old-fashioned sink again before wringing it again, harder this time. With an resentful sigh, she slapped it on the counter to dry it out, and a couple of giggly, low-level Sanitarae girls sitting in the bar jumped at the sudden sound. Arlenne rolled her eyes. The newbies, the small fry. If they were startled by a towel, how would they survive the world within the ranks of the Sanitarium?
Arlenne hadn't fell for the Sanatarium's stupid, stupid excuses. Anybody who observed carefully enough could tell that they were dumbing them all down so they would be easier to manipulate. Sadly, the effort had been mainly successful nonetheless; prime example: aforementioned giggly girly-girls, probably just hired.
Arlenne rolled her eyes again in disgust. Pity stirred within her - they wouldn't last a single second beyond the suspended Civilization. In fact, she predicted that they'd probably be dead within months, if not weeks.
Human and civilian lives were dispensable for the Sanitarium. It was hardly surprising. They had the entirety of the imbecilic population at their command. The amount of sadism that radiated from their headquarters was sickening; it had literally become a physical miasma that wafted up from Sub-skies and rendered Earth's surface inhospitable.
The Opposition, on the other hand, only had so many members that had slipped from the Sanitarium's grasp, each highly trained and specialized, so fewer members embarked on each mission in order to minimize casualties and risk of detection.
Arlenne carelessly flicked a drink at a regular. A civilian. He came here every night. A quick dip of the head had informed her he wanted his usual. He always looked tired, but somewhat less brainwashed than everybody else. It must've affected him, since the zap had affected almost everybody. And the others...Arlenne winced remembering the massacre of those not zapped and who hadn't fled to the Opposition in time.
Only she and her some of her close friends had continued studying in secrecy after The Takeover, and now electrolysis was like breathing to her. She was thankful they had risked their lives, because now she danced the Tripwires better than anyone else. It was a dangerous job, because once the water in her fingers and toes had separated to allow her to get through the waterproof barrier, both she and the hydrogen could catch fire on the stinging cables that swept under her, under everything - holding all of Civilization up in the sky.
Dodging them, however, was the only way to drop back down to the Subskies. And most, if not all, of her missions were in the Subskies after the Opposition recruited her for her Tripwire skills. Ducking out of Civilization through the suspended, electricity-charged cables was much easier at night when the glow of the wires lit up the night, but Arlenne could slip through freely at any time of day, even during the gray mornings when the wires' luminescence dulled against the hateful smog.
Her friends had followed her quickly to the Opposition. Of the five of them, Arlenne had been the best Dancer, although only third most powerful overall. They all would have been killed if they had been discovered to be unaffected. And when the Sanatarium mobilized their manipulation of Civilization, all promise for them in the mainstream world disintegrated, their only other option being to join the Sanatarium's most powerful rank of officers, the Seniors. And that was a cruel world.
The Opposition was far from forgiving either, but there they were free. They could fight unsuppressed for the world they still believed in.
Arlenne allowed herself one last muffled sigh before she shelved her thoughts and turned to the hooded figure stationed at the end of the counter. The sagging monks' hood was the trademark sign of a Senior, piquing her interest. Well, she had a powerful customer. She wasn't technically on duty, but in the Opposition all officers had their senses tuned in at all times, and maybe she could probe around a bit with this somewhat-inebriated member of the Sanitarium's uppermost ring.
She was bored in the bar. Compared to the precise and speedy mental calculations that dancing the Tripwires required, pouring drinks was repetitive and tedious. The serum smoke was heavy in the air and she gagged for the nth time. But a woman her age without a job was suspicious, and she could not risk detection. A dead Dancer was not a useful Dancer.
At least this Senior could relieve some of her boredom. This girl is only a level below the Monarch itself. Several scenarios ran through her head like calculations for a Tripwire, incorporating her past experience and wisdom from encounters with Sanitarae. She had only ever had one encounter with a Senior. She lifted a foot and with her big toe slowly traced the tapered, wavy scars stretching from her heel upward towards the back of her knee.
She had to be cautious. Even such a slight girl was still a Sanatarium, and a Senior was still a Senior, no matter how drunk. So she poured a shot of hard alcohol and slid it over the metal bar. "On the house," she whispered through the murmuring silence.
The girl nodded, reaching out with those horrible nails and a catlike grace, lithely dipping the miniscule porcelain flask beneath the shadow of her hood and handing it back to Arlenne without a single drop of silver liquid. Although her training had suppressed physical manifestations of her emotions, Arlenne was still shocked. How much alcohol could this tiny girl hold?
"Is the work tough?" she asked smoothly.
"It goes as usual," her faceless customer replied, in an equally guarded tone of voice. "You don't seem like one to talk without being spoken to."
Half-bemused and half-intrigued, Arlenne responded without missing a beat. "You seemed in need of some conversation, alone at the bar."
At this the girl, almost swallowed by her robes, shifted perceptibly. "Ha. Conversation? I thought you of all people would know that Seniors have no need for conversation."
Startled, Arlenne racked her Dancer-speed brain for a rebuttal. How did this girl know who she was? Regardless, she was in serious danger if the Seniors knew who she was, and she quickly reached for a glass beneath the bar to defend herself with.
"A bit tongue-tied, hm?" the girl chuckled, before throwing her head back to laugh. Only one girl could hold that much alcohol...the hood fell back with the sudden movement and fiery curls spilled from the dark void of the shadow.
The girl's face came into view, and not even her training could suppress Arlenne's shock. "Hello, Arlenne."
Slightly panicked, Arlenne snapped, "My name here is NINA."
"Whoawhoawhoa. You're using your Opposition alias in civilian life? Are you crazy?"
"I'm not a civilian. My four-letter alias suits me just fine, Mikabelle."
"Hey. Be quiet, will you? My name right now is LELA."
"So you're using your Opposition alias too, then."
"For different reasons." Mikabelle shrugged indifferently.
"And those would be?" Arlenne shot back.
"Why would I disclose them to you?"
"Of course you need to tell me everything. You're one of the five of us, and you're my partner. " emphasized Arlenne.
Mikabelle smiled wryly. "Was. Not now."
Arlenne could no longer smother her anger. In a heated whisper, she seethed, "Oh, because you're a traitor now? Now you're a Senior? Just like HANS? You've found power among the Sanitarae?"
Mikabelle coldly fixed her mismatched eyes on Arlenne. "I'm undercover, NINA."
"Oh yeah? Then why are you six months late coming back from this solo undercover mission of yours?" Arlenne challenged, glaring back into Mikabelle's guarded green and golden eyes.
"Listen. I came to find you and talk to you. I don't like this outburst you're having." Mikabelle said irritably.
Arlenne knew that she was referring to her failure to suppress her emotions, "You're just like HANS," she hissed.
Mikabelle's hands tightened momentarily around the edge of the bar. The orange butterfly on her Senior ring glittered. "What?" queried Arlenne. "Something touchy, LELA?" she mocked.
"Just shut up," muttered Mikabelle, staring at her ring. "HANS was undercover too-"
"Oh," interrupted Arlenne impatiently. "I see. Well, LELA," she said sarcastically, "both your excuses seem awfully similar."
"They-" Mikabelle began, only to be interrupted by a crash behind her.
"Shit," cursed Arlenne. "Don't you dare leave, okay?" she called back as she ran to stop the bar fight breaking out. To her surprise, Mikabelle stood up too. "Didn't you hear me, LELA?" she yelled back, rushing towards the two fighters.
They two arguing males were middle level Sanitarae, Chrysalises. Inwardly, Arlenne cursed again. Even though Mikabelle, who was a Senior, now knew her true identity, she still couldn't afford to let all the patrons know by using her Opposition training to stop the fight. She hoped she wouldn't have to use her Dancer skills to stop this one, or she'd have to change jobs again to stay under the Sanitarium's radar. But before she could intervene, Mikabelle materialized with a flicker in between the two charging males, and both dropped to her feet without so much as a look from Mikabelle.
"What are you doing?" spluttered Arlenne.
"The Monarch wanted me to keep the peace." Arlenne's eyes fluttered towards Mikabelle's ring. The Seniors' ring, which sealed the Seniors into the Monarch's service, was scrolling rapidly through a multitude of patterns. The butterfly in the center pulsated.
The Monarch, who had only ever appeared in public as a silhouette of a large butterfly, was relaying its instructions.
Mikabelle's voice shook her out of her awe. "Are you going to help me drag these two pathetic excuses of Chrysalises out of here?" she spat.
After they threw them out of the building, Arlenne walked back behind the counter and Mikabelle settled into her stool. "You ever hear its voice?" Arlenne asked curiously.
"I don't even think it has one. I just read its instructions off the Seniors' Seal."
Arlenne was shocked. "You can read that?"
"Why else do you think they seal us? They don't want anybody outside of the Seniors to be able to read it, so they can't afford one of us breaking loose."
Arlenne had already been contemplating how useful it would be to have the ability to read a Seniors' Seal. It could've saved her from the wounds forever painted onto her leg as scars.
Mikabelle continued, "Which is why as soon HANS broke free from the Seal, they zapped him. Brainwashed. Gone. He was completely out of it. Didn't remember anything. He was the strongest one out of the five of us, but even he couldn't resist when all the Seniors ganged up. And the Monarch didn't want us to kill him, because it wanted to keep his powers. I had to comply."
Arlenne was tempted to hit her head on the counter. This wasn't news she had wanted to hear, and she had a feeling she knew what was coming. "He didn't even stand a chance, did he?" she whispered.
Mikabelle confirmed her suspicious with a shake of her head. "From then on out, he was completely Senior. No trace of Opposition left in him."
Arlenne's eyebrows arched delicately. "Was?"
"He's dead, NINA. KIA. It was a routine mission, to rout out the Opposition, actually. That was the day I was planning on returning and relaying info. I had figured out how to break my own Seniors' Seal. But somehow, HANS' zap slipped when I got careless and he saw my blood. He managed to remember the Opposition through the brainwash. And that's when he got hit. He remembered you, and he remembered me for those last two seconds. God, NINA, I'm not supposed to have emotions, but it felt so good to see the recognition in his eyes for those final moments."
Arlenne stood motionless without response, only closing her eyes. "Is this what you came to tell me?"
"Partially." Arlenne had learned to read Mikabelle well over the years, and she could see her friend - ex-friend - was struggling to maintain control over her emotions as well. HANS, one of the only five friends of hers who had continued to study after The Takeover. He had been the most powerful out of them at one point too. Now even Mikabelle had fallen to the Seniors. Who was next? Ipaak? Flitter? Herself?
Arlenne walked around the counter and sat on a stool next to Mikabelle, in the now-empty bar. "Whoever thought that out of us five, only ELII, AMAU, and I would be left in Opposition? I never thought you and HANS would get captured this way." Arlenne said nostalgically. "You two were always the strongest."
"There's no need to use Ipaak and Flitter's code names anymore, Arlenne. Nobody's left here."
A rare silence in the bar engulfed them. Arlenne closed her eyes again. Despite her training, her eyes were tearing, and she didn't want Mikabelle to see.
"He stayed conscious long enough to tell me he loved me." Mikabelle blurted out tonelessly.
Arlenne's eyes shot wide open.
"Imagine - the most powerful Senior, a former Opposition, telling this stupid little Russian newbie that he's in love with her. I wasn't even sure of my feelings for him until he went cold."
"Mi-belle..." Arlenne whispered, using her childhood nickname. Any trace of anger towards Mikabelle dissipated in that instant.
"Seniors still have needs, you know. HANS and I spent many nights together before during pair missions but neither of us ever thought of love, or so I thought. I can calculate Tripwires almost as fast as you, but I can't figure out these ridiculous things called emotions? I'm not even supposed to have them. He wasn't supposed to have them. I had to deliver his Seal to his sister - it's tradition to bestow the Seal of a deceased Senior to their closest living relative - and I couldn't face her. I couldn't look her in the eye." Mikabelle shook her head, curls flying.
"They were going to zap me, you know. Keep me from rebelling, keep my emotions under control so I wouldn't break free like he did." Mikabelle rambled. "I somehow convinced them I was still in control."
"Arlenne," Mikabelle started after an unsteady breath. "I'm pregnant. And the Seniors will take the baby and kill it because it'll be a liability. I can't hide it from them."
Arlenne said nothing.
"I've stayed among the Seniors and the Sanitarae for only two reasons: I don't know what to do anymore, and because they won't let me leave. They suppress emotions even more ruthlessly than the Opposition. It's the stupid Seniors' Seal - it strengthened after HANS died. Now I can't break free like I knew I could before. I don't have any feelings left about HANS. I'm carrying the last damn piece of him around inside me and I don't even remember his real name anymore." Mikabelle was losing it quickly. Her seal throbbed in an attempt to smother her emotions, but it seemed to be losing.
And then Arlenne realized with a quiet start that only true, genuine emotion could ever break the Seniors' Seal.
Arlenne reached out and touched Mikabelle's hand, who flinched. "Anthem. That's what it was." sighed Arlenne. And suddenly tears glided silently down Mikabelle's mission-ravaged face. Nobody spoke for a few moments as Mikabelle's tears cascaded onto the worn wooden bar. They both jumped when the Seniors' Seal cracked, just a little bit.
"I feel...heartbroken?" Mikabelle mused. She looked at Arlenne's hand, a bandage concealed within the palm. "You burned yourself on the Tripwires? Were you distracted? Or...did you let feelings bother you during a mission?"
"I was...worried, about you, Mikabelle. Listen, you were trained to break this seal. Look," whispered Arlenne, wiping away a few tears on Mikabelle's face as her old teammate hiccuped, "you're coming back already."
Fear was not something Arlenne was used to seeing on Mikabelle. "But if even Anthem couldn't break it, how can I?" At the taste of Anthem's name on her tongue, a true sob racked her small frame. Her bitterness seemed to crush her body and cracked even more of the ring.
"You're now stronger than he was, Mi-belle." Arlenne said in a hushed tone, rubbing circles on her back. "And you know it!"
"I never even told him...before he died...Arlenne, I loved him so, so much. This damned ring, this ring..." Mikabelle wailed softly.
"Mi-belle," said Arlenne urgently, "this'll all be over soon - we'll get you out. Now just tell me about the Seniors, the Sanitarae, and," Arlenne hesitated, "Anthem. For your sake, and the Opposition's. You can and you must."
They sat until the serum smoke had faded away, and Arlenne managed to slip the Seniors' Seal off of Mikabelle's finger and send its now-shattered pieces to Opposition's leader for inspection.
They sat until Mikabelle was Opposition again.