I was walking up what felt like the twelve-thousand-th stair to my apartment when I realized I had left a bag on the first floor near the mail boxes and had to walk all the way back down to retrieve it.
Seriously. It had been one of those days.
So imagine how excited I was when I ran into Winona on my way back up. I’ve known Winona since we were kids and living in Oklahoma, back when there were still childhoods and states, long before the Annarr overthrew the entire planet like they were filming an alternate version of War of the Worlds. Even when we were kids Winona was a self‑righteous judgmental bitch — thinking she was better than everybody else cause her daddy was on council. Now she was predictable. Like too many others in my life who assumed it was natural for me to whore myself to the Annarr because, you know, I was a whore at heart and it was for the cause and all of that.
“Sorcha,” her voice grated.
“Winona,” I nodded but refused eye contact. When the history books are written I’ll get a whole chapter to myself. “The Whore Who Took Down the Annarr.” It’ll be a best seller. They’ll include a picture of me in my best stoic ndn face. They’ll talk about my language skills and stealth abilities in blending in among the enemy. “The Last Best Native Informant.” Subtitle. Italics. I’ll be a hero. Buildings and bridges will be named in my honor and people will argue about whether or not the statues do me justice. Until then it’ll just be more days like this one.
Altero, my highest ranking and most regular john, told me he wanted me to go legit and only be with him.
“What?” I replied, shocked.
“You will be here. Stay with me.”
“You know I have many… clients… what would I tell them?”
“Tell them whatever you’d like. Tell them nothing at all.” Altero’s smile, like most Annarr smiles, was creepy as shit, exposing two rows of razor sharp teeth and a bizarrely long tongue otherwise concealed behind a thin-lipped mouth that stretched nearly all the way to the back of the head. I didn’t respond. “Certainly the arrangement I propose is far better for you than having to live in that decrepit building, all alone.”
I wanted to stab him in the neck. He spoke as if he and the Annarr hadn’t had anything to do with my being all alone in that decrepit building.
I also knew his suggestion meant something else. The Annarr were fierce monogamists — in that ‘one at a time’ kind of way. Altero’s partner lived with their thirteen hatchlings on Annarr. They married young and for a long life — something like 300 years. It was not expected, or so he and other johns told me, that when Annarr were offworld they would not have sexual contact with another. They just didn’t believe in having multiple contacts at once. So if he was asking me to be with him, I took it to mean that he was asking me to be his ‘one at a time.’ From Altero’s perspective a big deal.
“How can you afford me full time?” I asked, half joking.
“What is your charge?” He replied, half joking.
I stood from the bed and paced. Altero knew enough about human behavior to know I was thinking over what he had proposed. Probably, in his mind, I was calculating the pros and cons of it, wondering how much I could get out of him. But I really did have to think about it. Living with him might mean I could get more useful, detailed intel about his work, of which I was still fairly vague, but it would also mean I would get far less from others. I guessed it would be tacky of me to ask him just how important he was in the Annarr scheme of their invasion-come-occupation.
“You are concerned about how to get word to your clients? Perhaps you would like to keep your apartment?”
“No. Not that.”
“I can take care of those things for you.”
I was certain he could.
“Can I think about it a bit?”
“Think about what? Perhaps I can help you think?”
I fell quiet. It was what Altero liked about me. Or so he said. That I wasn’t always chattering on about every little thing, as so many other humans did, to pass the time or cover themselves up with words when their clothes were off.
“Why don’t we try it, as an experiment, and see if you like it.”
“Can I think about it?” Suddenly he was annoyed. This could get bad. “An experiment, then. I’ll need to get home and collect my things.”
“I can send someone.”
“They won’t know what I need.” It was kind of a stupid thing to say since Altero knew that I had maybe two bags worth of things. But he relented and I promised I would return quickly.
So off I went, back to my apartment, exhausted and irritable, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Sorcha,” Winona said as if she’d spent hours making a dinner for me now cold.
“Winona,” I said, blocked from getting around her. “What is it?”
“You’ve been gone for some time. Enjoying the high life?”
“Yea. You keep telling yourself that.”
“I’ve told you I can collect your mail for you when you’re gone.”
“And have you going through my things? No thanks. I don’t need your help. Except to get out of the way.” I pushed passed her. I could tell she wanted to chit chat but I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what she wanted.
My one-room corner unit on the top floor was its usual musty, smoky smell of a world bombed into fatal submission. I opened what windows I could to wind-blown garbage, dusty rubble, scavengers, patrols. The view was like one of those post-apocalyptic movies nobody ever admits to watching but owns for streaming. Or Assad’s Aleppo. It was like Assad’s Aleppo.
I pulled up a black felt cover over the window facing west. That was the signal I used to tell my cell I needed to meet, one that my neighbors and clients assumed meant I was occupied, not to be disturbed. And I waited, futzing around an empty kitchen and unkempt room, trying not to look at pictures of Mom and I on vacation or hanging out or the now empty jewelry box she gave me for my birthday just before the world ended.
At the appointed hour I still hadn’t heard from anyone. So I wrote a coded note explaining where I would be and tucked it inside the dead radiator’s pipe. My contacts would know to look there, if any of them came looking. I gathered some clothes together, took down the felt, and left, finding Altero’s driver waiting for me at the front of the building.
As I crawled into the back seat, I looked up to see Winona in her window standing watch. I was sure she’d tell everyone I had been picked up in a limo. I was sure she’d leave out the part about the Annarr guard holding a weapon towards me as he told me to get inside it.
“I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” Altero said as he greeted me at the door to his quarters.
“I said I was. I did.”
Over the next few months I fell into an unexpected calm. Altero and I developed a comfortable routine with one another. I learned more about him and the Annarr — nothing particularly shocking. Just more detail.
They preferred to eat meat alive than dead and cooked, and consumed everything from insects to cows, depending on their appetites and mood.
They were born hermaphrodites and enjoyed sex with both male and female humans. They weren’t particularly interested in gender as a concept or social norm except to understand our hang-ups and pronouns. They all used our he/his for themselves as an assertion of power. They had learned.
When they were angry or on the offense, they raised a layer of skin off their shoulders that flapped and rolled about their heads like a vibrating cape. Still wasn’t sure what that was about.
The new information for me was that Altero — they — tended towards far more isolation than I had expected, given the demanding coordination required to conquer and occupy a planet. I hadn’t ever really thought about it. I guess I assumed invaders, human and alien, were extroverts. Who knew they preferred to be by themselves when off the occupation clock?
And, if I were being honest, and who isn’t at least attempting to be honest in a memoir, I would admit that over those few months, my fear of getting caught and eaten alive as an infiltrator mutated into a fear of becoming too comfortable. Not in the “forgetting who I am” sense — I could never forget my ancestors and relatives — but in the “I could fall in love with him” sense.
Yea. That’s startling. Seeing the words on the page.
I was worried I would fall in love with Altero. And then who knows what stupid ass thing I would do because love and stupid are basically the same order to the universe. It was so confusing. How easy it would be to substitute comfort for love. And how deeply painful it was realizing love and hatred lived in the same place. And I did hate them, every last one of them. But Altero most of all. And I was terrified he would figure it out.
One afternoon Altero held a meeting at our his quarters. By then I knew he chaired the Engineering Council and was coordinating some major development project. But I hadn’t ever met any of his peers or gained a good sense of what their work was about. As each one arrived that afternoon Altero made an introduction with me and then took them to the dining room. He served them a glass of the dismal red liquid they drank as they set up their portables.
From a safe but audible distance I continued my long-standing performance as the dumb and disinterested female human — fumbling around in the kitchen for something to drink and reading and exercising in the living room — my usual behavior during that time of day. To my surprise Altero never asked me to stay out of the way or locked me in the bedroom, things he did when he was working. Instead he seemed accustomed or even amused with my presence, enjoying that his colleagues had to make an effort not to get distracted by my being around.
After a brief time their discussion took a turn into Annarr. Even though the language is difficult, Altero didn’t realize I had learned enough of it to understand what they were saying as long as what they were saying didn’t become too technical.
“The Commander is set on his schedule,” Altero said in all seriousness. “There is no compromise to be made. The relocation will begin next week, construction the week following.”
“It seems premature,” Anders replied, sullen but contemptuously. “The humans have only just accepted their defeat. To insist on relocation, so soon, might inspire the resistance.”
“They have only been a nuisance. They are no threat to us,” Altero announced.
“We cannot begin constructing the device without relocation,” Oþergeara agreed.
“We cannot,” Altero agreed.
“How many ships?” Zwei asked.
“Seventy.” Altero said. “It is more imperative than ever that we stay on schedule. The Commander is very disappointed with our progress. He will not tolerate further delays.”
“Disappointed? We took this planet from its inhabitants in less than—” Anders began.
“Enough,” Altero stopped him.
“Once they arrive with the cargo we’ll be able to redouble our efforts,” Zwei said.
“I should hope so,” Altero said.
The following day, while Altero was at the meeting with the Commander, I ventured back to my apartment under the pretense of collecting the rest of my things. I found my note safe in the radiator and quickly put up the black felt and waited. Luckily they came.
“Tom,” Donovan said lovingly as he, Iron Eyes, and Wolfe entered. (Tom was my name in the resistance.) We embraced.
“What are you doing?” I asked, incredulous as Winona walked in behind them.
“I am with the resistance now,” she said and flopped herself down on my futon.
“I will not speak in front of her,” I said.
“She is with us now,” Donovan said.
“I don’t care who she is with. She is not welcome here.”
“Nevermind. You can tell me later,” Winona said, flipping me off as she walked out.
“I told you those two do not get along,” Iron Eyes said.
“We told ya so. You’ll have to pick one,” Wolfe said.
“I’ve known her my whole life,” I said. “And still she threw me to the Annarr to save herself. I will not have her here. I will not work with her. Put her in another cell if you want her.”
“Why did you two bring her to me knowing all of this?” Donovan asked of Iron Eyes and Wolfe.
“She’s different, cuz,” Wolfe said. “After you moved in with the Second, she felt bad. She wanted to help. Like she could save you kind of help.”
“So, what’s up? You been gone a long time,” Iron Eyes said, trying to change the subject.
“What do you mean, Second?” I asked.
“He and the Council are meeting with the Annarr Commander today?” He already knew I knew. “That’s what the Commander called him. He’s the Second in Command, Tom.”
“How could I not know that?” I didn’t mean to say it out loud.
The guys shook their heads and sat down. I paced. And started talking really, really fast. I told them about the armada, the device they were building, the relocations. Everything I heard the day before. Everything I thought would light the world on fire and the three of them sat there as if I was reading off a radiator manual. Which, by the way, still needed fixing.
“Well?” I asked.
“We’re waiting to hear from the other cells about how today goes.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say? I’ve told you they are bringing in an armada and going to relocate everyone and build some doomsday device and your… You already knew?”
“We need to know what the device is. Can you get us that intel?” Donovan asked.
I tried not to be insulted.
“It’s too risky,” Iron Eyes said. “If she didn’t even know Altero was Second in Command, it means he — they — are keeping information from her. Intentionally. It won’t be safe for her to go in there snooping around.”
I sat down.
“She’s been in there for months. If they were onto her, or us, she’d be dead,” Iron Eyes said. “We’d all be dead.”
Donovan ran to the window, then walked to the door, pulling out his radio. He paced while he Morse coded and waited. It was silent. He tried again.
We lost our minds when Winona barged back in. For a split second I thought she ratted us out.
“What’s going on?” She asked, taking a second bite of an apple she then threw to Wolfe.
I stood and paced. “I don’t know what’s going on here. If you don’t have clear orders for me, I will assume the old ones apply. But understand that I will not work with her. Do you understand me?”
“What is your fucking problem?” Winona screamed.
“You, dear. You, who sold me and everyone else you could find to the Annarr so you could stay free. Who acts all morally superior like your hands are clean. Who wears fine coats in the winter and new sandals in the summer and eats like a cow as if we don’t know where the money is coming from.”
“Oh please. Like you’re worse for wear. Living all high and mighty in the Annarr district. Eating fine food and drinking fine wine.”
“Are you kidding me with her?” Now I was screaming, at Donovan.
“You made it, didn’t you? You didn’t die on the streets?” Winona said, defending herself.
“It’s best you leave, Winona.” Donovan said. So Winona left.
“Why didn’t either of you tell him?” I asked Iron Eyes and Wolfe, feeling betrayed.
“Didn’t think it bothered you anymore,” Iron Eyes said. “I mean. I don’t know.” Wolfe went quiet.
I wanted to cry and I wanted to punch them. I ended up doing the latter. Iron Eyes, right between the eyes, so hard he fell back.
“You two stand guard. And you. I guess you better tell me what happened,” Donovan said as he pulled me to the futon and iced my hand. So I told him. Every sordid detail of how Winona sold me and others to the Annarr. That that was how I ended up being a whore. That when the pimp that bought me was killed, I just continued on with it because I didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t know how to get away from it. Then I started getting clients among their officers and earned enough to rent a place of my own. And then I found the resistance. Found Donovan. And that was supposed to be my way out.
I inhaled as if I’d been crying.
“You all better figure out what you’re about. What all of this is about. Cause if you’re sacrificing me in the name of the resistance, I’m not sure I care about it anymore. One john is enough. I don’t need humans or a new world whose just another one.”
I knew I wasn’t making a lot of sense. Donavan held my hand, icing it, massaging it, and I told him everything about Altero’s meeting again. To make sure I didn’t leave anything out. And he listened as if he didn’t already know it all.
“So I’m going back in?”
“Yes. But not for long. As soon as we know what their maneuvers are about I’ll get you out of there. I promise.”
“And the others? I take it there are others? Like me?”
“Them, too. You pull us all out.” Donovan agreed, reluctantly. I made him promise to keep me and my intel away from Winona until I was out. I knew of course that she already knew everything, it was just the principle of the thing.
So I went back to Altero’s. I was a mess. I would have to put on my best game face. But Altero wasn’t there. I assumed his meeting with the Commander was not over. So I put my things in our bedroom and showered, washing away the day’s soot and grime, and took a nap. I assumed when I woke he would be there. He was not. And so it began.
Over several days I became terrified there were bugs or cams in the apartment watching my every move so I tried to play it as routine as I could. I ate, I read, I listened to music, I danced, I exercised, I stared out the window, I cleaned up. I repeated. And still he didn’t come home.
And then the sirens started up. And then the fighting and screaming and bombing. From the penthouse it looked like the resistance had breached the district’s perimeter and re-engaged the Annarr in battle.
I tried to get out. To join the fighting. But an Annarr guard stood outside the door. Without a weapon I couldn’t go anywhere.
I was going stir crazy. I gave up on the pretense of it all and ransacked the apartment looking for information. Altero had everything locked up. And still I ransacked like a cat burglar looking for diamonds. At one point I got so desperate I pulled down Altero’s wall sized map of Annarr hanging in the dining room. The planet looked like a giant lava ellipsoid — black coal cut up like stained glass with red and yellow lava streaks. The beauty of the genuine chaos of heated rock. And still nothing hidden behind its gargantuan image. I collapsed on the floor in the middle of a 1000 pieces of broken land.
He stood in the double doors to the dining room with Donovan, Iron Eyes, Wolfe, and Winona in shackles and two Annarr behind them holding weapons. He nodded, sending the guards away. He always was a confident asshole.
Donovan swung at Altero who snapped his neck. He did the same to Iron Eyes and Wolfe and gloated.
“You resistance fighters are all alike,” he said. “Incompetent. Tasty, but incompetent.” He pulled off one of Donovan’s arms and ate it.
I stood and fell back a ways, my foot caught on a shard.
He casually released Winona from her shackles and she stretched out. What the fuck.
“Nothing to say, Tom?” Altero said. “No words for your lover?” He raised his weapon and pointed it at my temple. He was about to fire when Winona pulled a knife from her pants and shoved it into his side, then pulled it up into him. He bled out, fast, the blood seeping down, in between glass and map. She pulled out another knife and handed it to me. I shoved it into his neck.
“The Annarr will die. Your planet with die. You are nothing,” I whispered.
“We have to go, Sorcha.”
I stood, frozen.
“The armada arrives tomorrow. They are bringing the slaves of a 1000 worlds to finish their drill. They will kill us all.”
I couldn’t speak for the confusion, rage, fear.
“Sorcha! Now! We’ve got to get out of here.”
I took a deep breath and grabbed Altero’s weapons. As I pulled them from his body, I found a key tied around his wrist. It went to a locked area of the hall closet. There were documents and portables inside. They contained the designs for the new world the Annarr would build on the black rock of cooled lava they would create with the drill that would ignite it. And off we ran.