CONTENT: PTSD, trauma, hurt/comfort, nonbinary Zenith
The weight of the truth has come bearing down on Zenith harder than ze could have prepared for, and the gap between Neo New Mexico and Maine has never felt wider. Some things can't wait for face-to-face meetings, and exile or runaway, the demons that haunt you are still of the same stock.
(Part 3 of Lost In Transit.)
It is 3:07 AM and your AR feed is blaring.
It shouldn’t be, because you shut the damn thing off at night. You make exceptions for a select few, though; a very short list, but there are people who have been there for you in the past, when you've woken them at the most inconvenient hours mid-crisis, and you'd do the same for them in a heartbeat.
And then there's Zenith.
You almost didn’t set an exception for hir; this relative stranger, this wildcard who could flip your comfortable life on its head with one wrong move. But you did. As bad as you want to keep your head buried in the sand, keep your eyes averted and focus on the life you have here and now, Zenith has left a footprint in the back of your mind that you can’t simply wipe away. The conversations you had have dredged up long-buried memories that have been simmering just under the surface of your thoughts all day, and won’t be easily plunged back into the depths where you had them buried before. If ze has an… update, you want to hear it ASAP. You think.
Whatever the reason, the point is, you added Zenith to the exception list.
So you're awake, initially frozen in place by the screaming of the dial tone in your skull as your eyes snap open to pitch black darkness, expecting a cacophony of voices and boots against the ground and the sound of ammo clips clicking into place. When none of it comes, you refocus your attention on your AR feed. Someone's calling you. Zenith is calling you.
You sit bolt upright, and had you been more alert, less startled by being woken up so abruptly, you might have considered the call more carefully. But you're not. You don’t. You pick up.
"What are you doing?" It's a struggle to hide the rising panic in your voice. "I thought–what are you–?"
"I found them. Or I found... something." You can hear hir breathing on the other end of the line. Not panting, but unsteady nonetheless.
"And you're calling me? When they're right there? You can’t let them–"
"Will you just stop for a second?" Hir unexpectedly harsh tone stuns you into silence. "Sorry, I just–I need to–"
Ze pauses again. Breathes in deep, exhales hard.
"I found out what happened to me. All that stuff I couldn't remember. What they did with me."
Your heart plunges into your stomach.
"You–it’s been twelve hours!"
"Ten tours," ze continues, either not hearing or ignoring you. "Started when I was eight. Finished when I was twenty. I wasn't–" Ze stops for several seconds, only starting again when you're on the brink of asking if ze's okay. "They 'decommissioned' me then. They said I was... weak-minded. Had–had post-traumatic stress. So they wiped my mind clean and carted me off to Seattle. But they–lost me on the way, or something? and–I don’t think I was supposed to start remembering things. It's a mistake. A bug."
By this point, you have your knees drawn up to your chest; one arm wrapped tight around them, the hand of the other resting on your head. You feel sick. You might be sick. You wonder if this would have been easier if you'd been there–if you'd come clean about this before. You knew. At least in part. You just didn’t want to have to dissect your own memories to get at that information.
"I'm sorry, Zenith." It's all you can say. You're at a loss. “Are you–are you okay? Are you with someone?”
"Yeah, yeah. Pox is just around the corner.” A loud sniffle. “Did you know anything about this?"
You hesitate before answering. Can you dodge the question?
"I thought it was kind of obvious that I knew what they made us do."
"But did you know? That this is what they do with people like me?"
No. You can’t. Your stomach is churning and tying itself into knots.
"Yeah." You nod, despite being alone in the room. "Yeah, I–I did. Some of it. And I should have said something. I'm sorry."
"Why? Why didn't you?" You want to answer, but the words stick in your throat, and before you can dislodge them, you hear a deep breath and a heavy sigh. "No, don't, I... Never mind. I get it. I get it. I don't think it would have made much of a difference anyway."
"It's okay. It's... it’s okay." It's not okay, but you'll be here all night if you keep insisting as much. "I'm just... I don't know. They–twenty years. They took twenty years from me, and then threw me away when I wasn't useful anymore."
"I know. I know." You're putting on your best Kaveh voice and hoping it's enough, because you’re two-and-a-half thousand miles away and you don’t know what to do. "This is what they do. They're fucking monsters."
"I feel like they just tore my whole life apart. Like, who even am I? Is that me? The person who spent twelve years running around shooting people for someone's private army?"
"No. That’s what they wanted us to be, but we don’t have to… You don’t even remember doing–"
"Then what about now?" Zenith's voice rises, cracking ever so slightly. It’s like salt in an open wound. "They set me up in Seattle. They got me into the pro gaming scene–DragonStorm? The thing I play all the time? They made it up. They put that in my head for me. What about everything else? What else did they write into my mind?" Ze stops, and for a moment, you just hear ragged breathing. "I don't know. I don't know what's real and what's not."
You swallow thickly. You know this feeling so well that tears are prickling at the backs of your eyes.
"I–I know. I know. I know what it feels like."
"No, you don’t. You chose what you did after you got away. You didn't have it scripted out for you."
"Yeah, and what did they leave me with? Seventeen years being manipulated by them, and who was I at the end of it? You know what I've been doing for the last six? I've been–I’m just walking around, picking bits off of other people and tacking them onto myself and hoping nobody notices it’s just an empty shell, because they never teach you how to be a person. I don't know who I am underneath that, either. They took away my ability to know what's real or not, too. They took away my ability to live without second-guessing myself all the time just like they took yours."
Your outburst shocks you just as much as it shocks Zenith, and for a minute, there's just silence. Did you fuck up? You definitely fucked up, but Zenith hasn't hung up on you yet, and you're scared that the second you try to cobble together an apology, ze'll cut the call, and then–
"Fine. Yeah. I guess we are in the same boat."
"Maybe not the same boat," you concede. "But drifting down the same shitty creek, sure." You hear what might be a laugh, if you stretch the definition a bit. "Zenith?"
"They're not coming after you, right? They're not–they won't track me down?" It's a selfish preoccupation, but one that’ll eat away at you in the back of your mind until it’s answered.
"No... no. It was just like… a storefront. Or a clinic. The only person in there was this big guy behind a screen who looked like they were wired into the system. They didn’t seem interested in what I’ve been doing, or taking me back, or anything. Seemed pretty limited, actually. They told me where I have to go if I want any more information."
A laugh. A real one, if a little hollow.
"Of all the places in the world: Los Angeles."
"You're kidding me."
"Nope. So, I guess I've been headed in the right direction this whole time. I have no idea what I'm meant to be looking for once I get there, but I'll figure it out."
"It's LA. They probably have a corporate base there somewhere."
"Probably. They... told me I could look where I was raised, too."
"Where were you raised?"
"Buriram. It’s in Thailand."
“No fucking shit? I think we had some kids who were trained over there.”
"Yeah. Why they decided to ship me as far away as Seattle is beyond me.” You’re pretty sure it’s not, but let’s not chase that rabbit down the hole any further than necessary. “What about you?" ze asks, after a moment. "Where'd you grow up?"
"Does it matter?"
"No. I'm just asking."
You flip back and forth on whether or not you want to answer before caving in.
"Canada. Saskatchewan. Really remote. Right near this old ür mine." It feels weird to say it. You can't help but feel the paranoid itch that someone, somewhere is listening in, ready to leak your dark secret to the world.
"I was deployed in Canada, once."
"Why would they send troops all the way from Thailand when they had us ready to go right on their doorstep?"
"I don't know. Why do they raise kids on battlefields and then expect us not to be traumatised by it?"
"...Touché." You sink back against the pillows behind you, pulling a hand through your hair. "Do you... think you'll go? To Thailand, I mean." To you, it sounds like a bad idea. A trap. This all feels too convenient, too easy. That, in turn, could just be the paranoia talking. Your differing circumstances might be clouding your judgment.
"I don't know. Maybe. It depends what I find in LA, I guess." Ze stops, but you feel like there's more to it, and your instincts prove you right a moment later. "They... they told me my dad's name."
Your stomach drops. That jealousy is back, like you felt before, in the hotel room, except this is a jealousy you were never prepared for; one you never knew existed until this moment. It coils inside you like a snake, all too ready to start spitting venom if you don't quell it.
"And?" You manage to swallow back the spite, glad, for a minute, that Zenith isn't in the room to see your hands clench into fists. "Did you look him up or something?"
"No. I haven’t had time. This just happened, and we have a lot going on right now. Things are kind of all over the place."
The jealousy snake unwinds itself a little. The worry snake coils in its place. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Right now? In the sense that there’s no active threat to our lives, yes. We're just in a... precarious situation in New Mexico."
"Isn't that place super fucking hard to get into? Someone from work went there once and said it was crazy. What’s it like?"
“Crazy is an understatement. I’m not gonna tell you exactly where we are, but the place is really flashy. Ostentatious. Goes up two miles into the sky, fanciest consumer tech you’ve ever seen, full of people dressed up like total douchebags. We're stuck here 'til we... fulfill the requisites of the invitations that got us in in the first place, though. Look, don't worry about it."
"That sounds like something you'd say if I should be worrying about it."
"Just don't, okay?" Ze's insistent, but you can hear laughter behind hir words despite it. "Everything is alright, nobody's dying. We're doing just fine. Forget I said anything."
"Sure. Let's talk some more about your daddy issues."
"I would prefer if you didn't make it sound super gross." (You scoff.)
"You didn't look him up yet. Are you going to?"
"...Maybe. It feels like such a big step. It's just–It's weird, you know? Thinking about it. Having a dad."
"You’ve never thought about it before?"
"I mean, sometimes, yeah, but now it feels real. Y’know, funnily enough, most shadowrunners don't tend to be forthcoming about family stuff, if they still have family to talk about. With this crew–I mean, you know the deal with Pox's dad. Dak's and Tech's parents are all dead. It helps, in a way, 'cause it makes it feel more. Y’know. Normal. We’re all pretty fucked up. But I guess now… Maybe he's out there, somewhere. I don't know. Maybe I don't want to know. I'm not sure yet."
"You ever wonder what it’s like?" you ask, quietly, after a brief lull. "Just... having a family. What it's like growing up normal. Being a kid. Living in, like, a house, with a mom, or a dad, or whatever. Getting to live like that."
"I don't know. I don't even remember being a kid. It's all white noise."
"You don't even see yourself?"
"No. Or, I didn’t, until I started having flashbacks."
"They really take everything?"
"Yeah. Everything." In that moment, you feel as though you’ve gained some understanding of Zenith's frustration with being unable to remember, and hir obsession with breaking into that vault of locked-up memories. Just barely, but more than before. A lot of your early memories are fuzzy and difficult to discern, but they’re there. If most of your life was one huge, gaping void, you'd probably get curious, too.
"I... I hope you find out, one way or the other. About your dad. I hope he turns out to be a better parent than anyone who actually raised us." Given the circumstances, you have your doubts, but you don’t voice them. The jealousy snake is writhing in your guts again, and you don’t need it trying to strike out at an inopportune moment if you decide to dig any deeper into this particular topic. "So, ten tours, failed memory wipe, Los Angeles, Buriram, dad. Is that everything?"
"...Yeah," ze replies, as you take a second to mute the call on your end and take a few swigs from the bottle of water at your bedside. "That's about it."
"I mean, if nothing else... you wanted answers, and it sounds like you got answers." You lean back against the headboard, brow furrowing, your mind drifting back to coffee on the balcony. It feels like an aeon ago. How fast things change. "You see what I meant, though," you add, quietly. "About finding out some difficult things."
"Yeah. You were right. I mean, I knew, but it still..."
"Still hurts. I know." You barely notice your fingers curling around the sheets beneath you. "You can brace yourself all you want, but you still never know how hard the blow is going to be until it hits."
"Right." You can see hir in your mind's eye, dragging a hand down hir face, or running it back through hir hair. A silence, not entirely uncomfortable, hangs between you for a short moment before ze speaks again. "Where are you right now?"
The question makes your stomach lurch. You let it sit for a minute, toying with it in your mind, reasoning with yourself.
"Maine," you reply, eventually. "I'm in Maine."
"How was your flight?"
"It fucking sucked. There was a kid crying and I had a headache the whole time."
"Because of the kid?"
"No, but it didn't help." There’s another brief silence. You’re still surprised at how easy it feels, given the circumstances. "Zenith?"
"Are you okay?" you ask, your voice soft. "Like... really okay.”
"I... I don't know. Kind of." Zenith breathes in deep. "This is just–it's a lot, you know? I'm–" Ze stops, the words audibly catching in hir throat as hir voice wavers. "I'm scared. That’s it. I’m scared. This felt like a pipe dream for so long, but this is–I can't go back anymore, even if I hate what I find. This is it. The door’s open, and I can’t close it."
"Obviously, you’re scared. This is scary. It’d be weird if you weren’t. But… you’ll be okay. I know you will." You draw your arms around yourself, like it might transmit the sensation across the thousands of miles separating you. "You have people who love you. People to look after you. Just remember to let them. ‘Cause if they’re worth shit, they want to. And I know this shit fucking sucks, but you’ve been through worse. If nothing else… it’s closure, right?"
“I hope so.”
“It will be.” And it’s going to be closure for them, too, in the most final sense of the word.
The briefest of thoughts flashes through your mind: that if Zenith can’t finish the job, then you’ll go out and do it yourself. It scares you. You bury it as quickly as it surfaced.
"Hey, it’s… it’s late. It sounds like you’ve had a long day. I think you should get some rest.”
“I know. Fuck, what time is it in Maine? Like, 2, 3 AM? Sorry for waking you up.”
You laugh. "It’s fine. I’ve done this to other people often enough. I think it’s fair I get reminded of what it’s like every once in a while.”
"You make a habit of calling people in the middle of the night?"
"Not a habit, but it’s happened more times than it probably should've."
“That sounds like a habit.”
“Fine, if you wanna call it that.” You roll your eyes, thinking back to all the nights being scooped up into friends’ cars and subsequently spent crying into cheap coffee at the nearest drive-thru, or evading sleep watching obscure 40s anime until you passed out at sunrise. The memories would almost be nostalgic, if the circumstances weren’t so fucking miserable. “C’mon, you should go. You need to sleep.”
“Right. Yeah.” Zenith exhales heavily. The rustle of clothing makes you think ze’s getting ready to stand, if not standing already. “Sorry I broke that minimal-contact rule so fast.”
A slight smile pulls at your lips. “It’s okay. I think this qualifies as an important development. You should… keep me in the loop. Let me know what happens.”
“So you’re okay with messages? Calls?”
“...I guess, yeah.” Breathe in deep, exhale slowly. “If you got that close, and they didn’t try anything, then maybe–maybe it’s safe. For now, at least. I want to know that you’re okay.”
“Okay. Yeah. I’ll let you know if anything big happens.”
“Good. Stay safe. Make it out of NNM alive for me. I want to hear about all the freaky shit that goes on in there.”
“I’ll do my best. And don’t worry, I’m definitely gonna have stories by the time we leave.” You can hear hir smiling, and it does something to calm your nerves. Just a little bit. “I’ll… talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yeah. Talk to you soon.” A heavy lump forms in your throat, and you almost choke on it. You’re tired; ze’s tired; you’re both in need of rest, and there’s nothing gained by sacrificing it to drag this call out any longer than necessary. That isn’t making the prospect of hanging up any easier.
“Night, Aubrey. And… thanks. For answering. And listening.”
“It’s okay. You know where I am, if you need me.”
“Yeah. I got it.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Zenith.”
The little call monitor in the corner of your AR feed blinks out, and the rest of the display with it, leaving your vision clear again. You only realise now, as all of it slides out of your body at once, how tense you were for the entire call. The tears are back, welling in your right eye and absent but stinging all the same in the left. There’s no single reason why. Because you wish you could do more. Because you should have explained last night, or this morning. Because you’re scared, too.
You can’t dwell on this. It’ll drive you crazy. You drop your legs from your chest and wipe the tears away, sinking back under the sheets even though you know you won’t get a wink of sleep for the rest of the night. You’ll just be waiting for that AR feed to come to life again.
(Or, alternatively, praying that it won’t. You don’t know which you'd actually prefer.)
You pull up your media player and queue the entire first season of Steel Contract XT.
Somewhere, across the country, two figures begin their heavy-hearted walk home down the artificially low-lit Fyre Tower streets.