CW: sexual violence threat, ritual sacrifice, fascist ideology, missile

When Yelena woke up, the world was as it was. As it has always been; bright, relentless, a flickering throb. Hot fluorescences agitated the fire of the mind, with white ash roiling from a crumbling dream... or if she'd even slept at all; the yellow of these nauseating walls which surround her had never been touched by sunlight, nor had a day ever passed. Life within these walls was inert & thin, a shitty straight-to-video parody. She sat up in her bed; a terrible thumping was beating at the side of her stomach. Time didn't pass in this bunker-- nah, it just decayed. Run your little finger 'cross the walls; there's only the dusty residue of this planet stuck to your skin.

Yelena bolted up from her bed... she jumped, jumped a few more times, did a few push-ups and sit-ups. Her heart thumped, the linoleum was chill 'neath her feet; she was still among the living. She looked down, the floor was the color of skin, with dark moles and crates across its surface. She took the letter opener from the floor, drove the blade into the desk, then withdrew. She dropped it back onto the desk, then drank the rest of the energy drink Alec had left her. Escape. Pabjek. The word seemed meaningless to her now, the name of some distant star. She wonders of life amongst the vacant planets, her un-aborted twins borne of the choices taken. "Vixat," the plaque above the door read. A promise it could not fulfill. Yelena stepped to the mirror, studied her flat and red face, and slapped herself as furiously as she could. With Christine dead by her own hand, she could finally live as herself-- she unlocked her phone, moved the orange frock up just enough to reveal her swollen belly, and took a selfie in the mirror. She looked at herself; the undisciplined form made the face of the figure anonymous, its body a patchwork of ill-fitting pieces. She deleted it a few moments later.

There was a knock at the door. Yelena jumped; hit in the corner by the toilet. A few moments passed... she lunged for the letter opener and hid it in her frock. The length of the blade felt something like equality. Another knock; she heard Alec loudly call for her. Yelena swallowed the stomach acid that burnt in her throat, and walked to the door, and stood right up to it: "what do you want?" She shouted. A few more knocks, markedly more forceful. Her wet hands gripped the letter opener's hilt beneath her frock, and she opened the door just slightly. Alec's face appeared through the crack; "sorry shanti, but we gots a long day ahead of us." Force slammed the door open, and Yelena fell back, still firmly grasping the letter opener. Groypee and Paco stood there before her, like glittering statues dressed in ceramic plates and Kevlar. Groypee wore a flower that rose from his vest, and Paco's feathery mustache looked feral hanging beneath his trucker cap. Alec opened up a large sack made of jute, far larger than it should be, and stood there with a half-cocked smile. A distorted sham of a forgotten tradition.

"No!" Yelena shouted. "No fucking way am I getting in that!" she shouted again. Groypee and Paco pulled her onto her feet by her arms, their faces red & mean. She hoped their many beatings would dissuade them from giving in to their primal urge... is she to wither, to go slack with surrender? Groypee and Paco squeeze her arms and her pulse thuds in protest. To be of value is a great curse; Yelena feels herself a tiny gem to be spat on when a reminder of her worth is needed. She hung her head, and Alec covered Yelena with the sack. As they closed the sack and lifted her, she felt the odd relief of night's arrival long overdue. She shut her eyes and fell into a deep snore.

Strange that we should meet again like this. Now, there's a piece of datum you'd hate to swipe left on! What's a sweet thing like you doing in a dump like this?

The orange disk grew, its warmth burning the sky. An eagle flew through the window and landed beside her, and she lowered her bow. A flame nuzzled her bare chest. At the top, a bell swung from left to right. It toils for no-one. In the distance, a few towers tickled the red skies. So what's it like in the mental institution? Did they take out your brains and make you a hot fem-bot unit? Do they let you have an insta in there? A finsta? Christine laughs. It's time to wake up. A mahimata has a lot to do.

Darkness unmercifully burnt up into heat. Yelena shrieked in pain; through the hands covering her face, a shine blew gently through the webs of her fingers. Before her sat a large table decorated with gold, laid and set with thousands of dishes. Groypee and Paco folded up the sack and moved away like her obliging attendants, stepping behind Yelena. She let her hands fall from her face-- before her sat a large bowl of glowing magenta liquid, a few eggs floating along like islands. Besides the bowl were many smaller bowls, filled with black fish eggs, orange fish eggs, pickled cucumbers and garlic, pickled tomatoes, pickled cabbage; there were wreaths of dill and parsley, and the air was singing with notes of pepper and freshly-cut herbage. Stretching from one end of the table to another, there were salads of red beats and cheese, potatoes and peas and ham, herring sprinkled with chopped-up eggs, and there were pancakes and little dumplings covered with sour cream, and there were long skewers of meat glistening with fat, and shiny pieces of onion and pepper, and there were little steaks and sharp little rods of potato, and there were cakes and black bread and long loaves and...

Yelena set her mouth to the edge of the bowl and sucked down as much as she could in one gulp. With the spoon she took one sip, two sips of beets, cucumber, carrots and egg; she sat on a bench before her and took a few pieces of bread and tore them apart and dropped them in the soup, then mixed it 'round a few times with the spoon. As she swallowed with little concern for chewing, she looked to her left, to her right at the women of the bunker; their foreheads sweaty, their heads veiled, their hands coarse and rough. Tahmineh stood in front of Alec, her face ruddy and swollen. Yelena's gaze was caught on the sharpness of Tahmineh's chin, pointed like a weapon. It reminded her of Natalia; she tried to dull her worries by telling herself that the girl was merely a fish she'd thrown back to its waters. As Yelena's chewing slowed, she took in the surroundings beyond the table-- a few posters of Tupac hung from the crackling walls, and above the door was an etched red symbol of a circle surrounded by three leaves. In Russian, a placard beneath the symbol read "izluchenije." Before the table was an empty space, lit up by candlelight.

Little King Samuel came from the metal staircase behind Yelena, dressed in a bulletproof vest adorned with a cross, and a bandana wrapped around his head and a cigar in his mouth. "Yelena," he smiled. "My mahimata." Yelena nodded as she spooned dumplings into her mouth. "Do you know what it means to be a mahimata?" Yelena's eyes were heavy, dark; juices spilled down her neck onto her frock. "It is only a woman's power that can actualize the masculine potential. Man represents change, but women represent the never-ending currents of the universe." Yelena's chewing ceased; the women looked down at the floor, as if to shield their eyes from Yelena's fate. Yelena bit a chunk off her bread. "Are you going to rape me, Samuel?" she said plainly before chewing. Little King Samuel let out a few nervous chuckles, then put his hands together. "I understand you're a little on edge. It's on me to show you that you are safe, that all you women are safe." A few boys came behind Little King wearing masks, dressed in olive-green military garb from the waist down. One of the boys pulls at another boy; the mask of the first boy has sparkles in the cheek and a wide smile, and the other boy's mask had a tear running from its left eye. Another boy broke in the middle; his expressions was fearsome with shark teeth blaring. "Do you like Tupac, Lenochka?" Yelena burped before nodding in affirmative. Little King started to pace before the tables; "you see, he called himself Makaveli, after Machiavelli, but I always felt he was something more... he was a figure of pure action as informed by the will, hot blooded sentiment mixing with cold, calculated violence. He saw his artistry and his banditry as one and the same; he was a warrior poet, he was the hip-hop Odin. Do you get what I'm trying to tell you?" Another boy wearing a mask stood beside Little King; his expression was stoic and indomitable.

Yelena shook her head while shoving a few eggs into her mouth with two of her hands, her frock stained yellow and red. One of the boys brought out a makeshift wireless speaker, made of bolts and felt. A few pings filled the room while Little King Samuel fiddled with his phone, trying to collect the right files. "Mahimata moya," he sputters. "You get the honor of being the first to see the work-in-progress 'All Eyes on Me.'" A few sustained violins ring out from the speaker, discordant yet hazy enough to fade in the background, and two of the boys dressed in military garb dropped down on their knees before Little King Samuel. He let his arms drop beneath him, and the sustained violins came to a sudden halt, letting the resonance continue on throughout the bunker. A few bass notes rose from a deep darkness, merely flowing without melody, as Little King Samuel raised his arms to form the shape of an archer eyeing his target. As other instruments joined, Little King Samuel repeated the gesture of the archer, choosing a different target each time. First a gentle wave of oboes, then a sudden strident figure of strings repetitive and insistent. The boys line up behind Little King Samuel, who hid his face in open palms. The music fell to an eerie silence, and Little King Samuel approached Yelena who served as the captive audience.

"Who shot 'ya?" Little King spat. "Ready to die, motherfuckers." Little King fell onto his knees. From behind, one of the boys came with a heavy lip and a steady hand, and set a pistol up to Little King's neck. Little King's head tilted towards the make-believe sky of the stage, then pushed away the other boy. Two other boys came and stripped the jewelry from Little King's neck. The music turned discordant, full of insistent violin screeches and deep rumbles of the bass. Little King falls down to his knees. Another boy places his hand on Little King's shoulder, but Little King pulls the hand away, and accepts his solitude there in the loneliness of the empty stage.

One of the boys cracks a spotlight from the top of the stairs overlooking the stage. It shines down onto Little King, enveloping him in a shining white egg made of light. "Egg?" Yelena thot. She cracked another egg open, feeling her stomach heave with heft but incapable of controlling her appetite. How long, how long; she'd denied herself for how long? No more. She spat out a few egg shells, stuck to the roof of her tongue. Little King rose suddenly to his feet, the music taking on a more playful rhythm with fluttering flutes and airy little spins of the viola, and Little King laid across the arms of one of the boys; and together, they hopped on their feet, graceful like sparrows, stepping and tip-toeing with admirable accuracy. Yelena, who always had a weakness for dance, dropped her two pastries to applaud. Little King stretches out his arms like a bird while the boy lifts him up towards the fire of the skylight.

Little King goes back on his feet. "Sorry, work in progress." He plays around with his phone, and Yelena strokes her tummy as a terrible nausea rose up into her chest. The music shifted from precious little wooden instruments to drawn out sounds in a vacuum, like one ever-long lasting cosmic slurp. Two of the boys pull aside the food on the table, throwing it into the floor and making a terrible clatter as salads and little fried potatoes scatter across the floor. Little King lies on the table, and one of the boys pulls out his phone and reads from a script.

"The scene," the boy cries. "Makaveli lies on the operating table. The operating room lights cast a sterile glow, like the streetlights of a concrete jungle." Little King looked so lonely, isolated from the world there on the table.

The boy presses something on his phone. A loud gunshot rings out. The drawn out sounds fade to the background.

"In my own way," Little King speaks in a bellowing voice, "I've tried to be free. I've taken fate into my own hands, as a man must. But I could not know that death is what it means to be free." The stage lights flickered. The boys spoke in unison: "ashes to ashes; hood to hood." A comment section's collective nightmare. One of the boys plunges a wooden stake into Little King's heart.

A loud gunshot rings out. This time even louder, shaking some of the lights into a slow sway.

"And yet there, between where the shadow plays on the tail of the panther, I've tried to milk the light that peers through the cracks. And drunk on the milk I've tried to carry water and chop wood, and I sat parched on the green pastures past the still waters you still denied me. And in the terrible heat of summer with its hissing concrete lawns. And in the goodness of the LORD dear LORD all is good so good my LORD but I buckled, and I shook and rattled like a prize catch pollock in the muddy waters flowing downwards from crystal mountains on which mansions have their tables ceaselessly set. And yet I was not caught."

"Who?" The boys answer.

"But life in a fishbowl is not life at all good LORD, dear LORD. It is filled with bobbles and knick-knacks and artificial sands, and the terrible tapping of the glass that insists upon you. Dear LORD, it is that damnable tapping once more! And I looked to my sides and I saw that the other fish of my school were deaf to the fingers uninvited at the windows of my world. So I reached out to bite those fingers, and indeed I gnawed right up to the hand that feeds. Forgive the bromide, dear LORD."

A loud gunshot rings out. The plates and glasses pinged and clanged as the table shook.

"And I--," and here Little King takes a peak at his phone and scrolls through a few lines, "like an arrow am doomed to the trajectory I've been shot on. And I passed from grand halls to mental ghettos, and I've been hospitalized by the choices of others. And I've worn the cloak of night, and felt its long daggers stuck in me. But I fear not for I know my body is merely a vessel of my desire, and my will, and who I chose to be. So I remade myself in thine image, again and again, redoing the past and future like sketches in a notebook. A name is no sentence but merely the clay by which I form myself, and a name may change its shape as I will."

A few little crumbs fell from Yelena's mouth as she was dumbfounded to hear such words. Her own name, 'Yelena,' was just clay, just as the words 'Tupac,' '2Pac,' or 'Makaveli' were. A fiction, formed by the actions done by her and done upon her-- meaningless without her will. The flesh itself is merely incidental, a boring matter of fact. She was no more 'Yelena' than she was 'Christine,' no less 'Christine' than she was 'Yelena' or '@user1243232' or 'neko_girl2000' or or or...

"As I was born 'Lesane Parish Crooks,' dear LORD, let me die 'Makaveli' as a symbol of the will you'd given me in a world starved of light."

A loud gunshot rings out; so loud that the walls recoiled in a tremor. The music died out to a gentle hum. "Who?" So, so strange.

Yelena awoke from her after-banquet sleep with a terrible fever and a nausea that tumbled from one oozing wall of her stomach to the other like a ship in troubled water; so she tumbled, from the bed to a sink standing before a glossy mural of palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. The offensive image made Yelena spew onto the sink, onto the floor, onto the toilet; her entire stomach emptied itself in one grand gesture of purity. She fell onto the floor, and realized that she'd been stripped-- she'd been denied the humanity of dressing herself. The deathly cold of the floor sent sparks up her spine, and she yelped and crawled over the floor back to the bed where she clutched at the covers and dragged them onto herself to make the world dark again. Nay-toe, help me!

Dark, dark again. She laid beneath the covers on the floor for how long? Without the sun, the minutes and hours become flakes of skin. Another woman's dream had become Yelena's nightmare, but what would have her name been? "Yelena, Yelena;" she muttered to herself, unsure of what the sounds were meant to represent. Yelena took the covers off her face, and looked around the room-- the chiseled roses on the ceiling, the tulips and marigolds of the carpets, ugly ugly ugly! Yelena dragged herself back on the bed, meditated for a few short moments, and noticed that a mannequin now sat in the room next to the mirror. From the mannequin hung beautiful red silk, embroidered with geometric shapes prancing amongst jasmine and magnolia. Did the silk belong to the woman for whom this whole shelter had been meticulously constructed? The wife of a top-ranking official, or his mistress? Yelena rose from the bed, draped in the covers, and inspected the silk with her fingers. It felt heavy and rigid, as if the fabric itself were weary with the weight of all said & done. She looked down at the dusty portrait of the woman next to the mirror; Yelena had been an understudy her whole life. "In this patchwork of lives," she thot, feeling all filosofikal 'alla a sudden. Thinkin' of this pool that had produced her, thick with beads of liquid identity, freed from the constraints of cold-hard cash. Here in the pool, we are free to play as ourselves, to wear the tattered costumes of the past. "But who was Yelena really?" she sez as if narrating a Shorty scrolling by... Yelena looked around again, studying the flower-decorated chamber of the bunker, and took her place.

"The ceremony is starting," Alec said while he walked behind Yelena, careful not to disturb the red silk with the sooty barrel of his AK-74. "Just down the hall this way," and Yelena felt the air thicken as they traveled lower down the complex, past the rusting machines and dead computers. A few young children saluted at Yelena, guarding the storeroom filled with nutritional bars and energy gels. Even thicker air, slivers of silver rolling through the air. Tension flooded into Yelena's chest; she felt as if space itself might combust under its own pressure. "Bah," she spat. Alec stopped her, his ugly, rotten glove on her silken shoulder; he stood there, suspended, his nose jumping with an anxious twitch. "I feels like I should be saying something, little dime," he offered. Yelena pushed away his glove; it left a dark impression on the fabric. "Come on, don't be like that, Lenka." She tried to see it from his eyes-- were they not both objects, merely drawn from different bins? "That's not my name," she flatted muttered. Alec's demeanor stiffened up, and his smile fled. He drew up his weapon. "Suka blyat; we need to get moving, detka."

The bunker opened up to a deeper complex, with darker hues and cavernous spaces fogged up with the dust of a forgotten something, or another; there were signs and placards which were etched with 'opasnostj,' painted with 'vnimanie,' lettered with all sorts of commands like 'vkhod bez maski zapreshon' or 'kantraliruemoya zona.' Artifacts of another time, their meanings dead and the symbols lifeless. Ah; she felt like a ghost aimlessly wandering her own graveyard. Further down the stairs, the bunker opened up to an impossibly large chamber topped with a huge hole towards the sky from which dense, heavenly light shone down... at the center on the floor, a large white missile hung over a dark pit of machinery erect and proud amidst a halo of light, pointed towards the needy blue orifice. Yelena felt herself gasp; "jobarj," she muttered. The side of the missile was painted with all sorts of red lettering, and at the base stood etched "8K69." Above her, there were a dizzying number of chambers flowing in every direction, filled with pipes and instruments, connected by millions of wires that stood like veins throbbing on the surface of the concrete. Underneath the burning light, there was a metal platform on which a table with a dish had been set beside a large computer console. Before the platform sat the many women she'd met before in the bunker, who had traded their black cloaks for beautiful red scarves. She could not see their faces, but she noticed that a large empty space separated their seats from the men. In the further periphery of the platform, many boys sat on the floor, chewing on their nails or cleaning their weapons or doing push-ups. The whispers and laughter, the clattering... they reverberated so strongly that Yelena felt her skull rattle, shaking her thoughts to stupidity; after a few moments, she realized her fate and walked down the empty space 'tween the seats towards the metal platform.

"My dear friends," Little King announced as he walked down the stairs from the control rooms towards the metal platform. "Feast your eyes. Doesn't she look good enough to die for?" Yelena stood before the metal platform, and watched the gaze of the women fall upon her. She saw their chiseled faces with their sharp chins and noses; their plucked black eyebrows a suggestion of the beauty they shrouded in modesty. She touched her own hair; the dirty blonde strands were frayed, full of flakes, and she felt like an animal put on display at a circus. Prodded with a stick. She felt ready to dance; Yelena cracked a smile. The women remained lifeless. Alec took a seat at the back, beside two men dressed in ill-fitting officer's clothes that they'd stolen from larger, hungrier men. The boys rose to their feet; a sea of eyes intent on piercing Yelena. The heat made her stomach churn. Their eyes then turned from Yelena, towards the missile that loomed above her like an ancient monument.

"Strength and honor, my friends. That is what it represents to us. Strength and honor; a powerful symbol of a new world order. A fist that pierces the skies. And... a powerful cleansing flame. Whatever your personal beliefs are, friends, surely we can agree that this is a weapon of divine providence. Powered by pure human will. I quiver in anticipation when I see it, and think of its charismatic power." Yelena opened her face and smiled as widely as she could muster. Little King looked up at the missile, ascended the platform, and placed his hand up against the hull of the missile. He pressed his forehead to the hull, and smiled. "Today, we seek a blessing for our new 'mahimata.'" Little King gestured to Yelena, beckoning her towards the platform. Yelena faced the crowd as she shuffled towards the platform... two boys came and lifted her up onto the platform, where Little King patted the computer console to show Yelena her pedestal. "Just as the great fist above us can empty the world, a great 'mahimata' may give birth to a new world; by her sheer will alone, she destroys the world and she creates it. She is the great fist in human form, a girl-shaped missile." The boys cheered; they pressed their oily flesh together, still free of fateful hairiness. Yelena felt stretched on a rack, her every pore exploded to hysterical sizes. She locked her smile into place, she felt her muscles twitch and her forehead burn. She felt some vomit burn at the back of her throat.

A few boys pull a table towards the platform, lined with all sorts of dark red meats. They looked slick and sickly under the light peering through the orifice above them. Yelena looked above her, trying not to be too sentimental 'bout the plumes of smoke freely crossing through the sky. If she was the girl-shaped missile, what was the needy, wet little hole beggin' for a strike? The metaphor begun to collapse in her brain; she thought of men fucked by explosive phalluses all night, walls streaked in sticky drama. They turn into red spittle in an instant flash, gone in a single orgiastic display of might. If she was the girl-shaped missile, she longed for a target to fuck.

"What do we call our 'mahimata,' my dear friends?" Many of the men who were seated crossed their arms, took hits from vapes, had a shot or two of chemical-colored energy drink. Paco and Groypee wore matching tracksuits, revolting sunglasses; she wanted to see them captured in glass, forever made monuments to their own wretched banality. "What do we call our 'mahimata?' I'm reminded of a passage, if I may read it to you;" Little King took out his phone, and fiddled with the apps for a few seconds before clearing his throat.


« After a harsh winter, the 'druzhina' had burned a young woman to death in order to placate Nay-toe’s anger. This disturbed Kali Hichi, who told the 'druzhina' that such rituals belonged to the world of 'Nefejest.' The 'druzhina' responded with a question: "how should we show Nay-toe that we are devoted to the cause given to us?" Kali Hichi retired to his mountain, and thought for a long time. Afterwards, he returned to the 'druzhina,' and said: "Simple. Just make a puppet of a young woman, and burn that instead. A death is a mere tragedy. Symbols burn forever in the heart and the mind." They made the puppet and called her 'Marena,' meaning 'cute little death.' Soon, every household in the 'druzhina' had purchased their own 'Marena.' »

"My friends, we shall name our 'mahimata:' Marena!" The men on the seats rose to their feet, erupting in applause. The women remained seated; Yelena was unsure if they'd even comprehended the ceremony, if anyone would bother to translate all that had been said and done. She saw Tahmineh turn to one of the other women and whisper something in an ear. Yelena turned her gaze away from the crowd, looking at Little King, who seemed so proud in his Air Jordan's and olive military overalls. She felt like the butt-end of a terrible joke, as if the cosmos big-banged only as a prank to humiliate Yelena; or should she say Marena? The light above her filled the room with white-hot heat, and the applause crackles like firework. Marena? The name is familiar. In the white-hot heat, she sees strawberries growing from the vine, impossibly sweet. They sit beyond a rusting gate; Yelena tries to pull apart the gate but the rusted and brittle lock nevertheless does not yield. Marena? There is a shape she sees, refracted in a murky pool of mud beneath a squalid old apartment. She's a child of the land, of the earthly blood.

"I've tried to make sense of you;" Yelena speaks out to Marena. "But I don't know where you and I begin. I know your shape, it's so familiar to me because it's like my own. But what is Christine, and what is Marena?" There are no answers. She remembers her mother on the balcony, smoking and lost in her contemplation. "Did I have a sister?" Yelena asks her mother. This humble stereotype can't offer much of an answer. Throughout the years, she could not shake the feeling that she'd been separated from some sort of conjoined twin at birth; a shadow who lived her own distinct life, invisible in the light. "Marena?" She calls out, hearing her own voice reverberated throughout the bunker.

From the darkness at the back, a figure walked out of the shadows. The figure was tied to a piece of wood; its head was wax, its hair yellow-d like fine mustard. Two blue plastic pieces hung from the head like rubies, and some tattered red cloth covered the wooden body. The boys held up the figure like a coffin, their fists tightly gripp'd 'round chipped wood. The figure had a crooked smile sewn in bloody thread, tied to its fate by gnarled rope. "Marena?" Yelena muttered.

And what did she look like? The frayed hair that ran from brown to black, with strands of silvery white that hid her ears. Her short, stubby fingers, tipped with soot, a single finger yellow from cigarettes. Soft, tired eyes; they dance with anxious expectation. A sharp, piercing nose above lips that fall apart so easily. Tears that ran down the traffic markings of her long neck. The sharp teeth that revealed themselves with laughter; the childish pout. Fine hairs that stood like trees over rosy lakes. Focus just long enough, and you may fly through the landscape of her face, a history of touches glittering like the tarnished gold of sunrise over a lake. "Marena?" And in one quick flash, a light turned all these features white as they exploded into flames. And now the world dies in heat.


Natalia watched as the fires fell from the sky and clattered onto the ground. With each impact, a plume of hot fiery glass erupted into the air like spittle. She'd never seen it before, though her mind quickly dismissed any sweet fantasies of divine vengeance. Revenge must be a human emotion, she thought; an omnipotent being with infinite might need not concern himself with such pettiness. She gathered her things back into her backpack, throwing some of the left-over sausage to the starving wild dogs below. She rubbed her wrists; they were still raw and red from the chains she'd been placed in. A few nervous thoughts insisted upon himself-- she imagined Yelena in chains herself, sent off to Europe to work bathrooms. Serves her right, she thot; though she could not explain her animosity, she felt no need to apologize for it.

After she'd lowered herself down from the roof, she cleaned her knees; glass residue made the skin dry and itchy. A pick-up truck drove up beside her, covered in stickers of drawn cat-girls. A boy wearing a collar sat on the cargo bed, a green G3A3 nuzzled under his cheek. One of the windows of the pick-up truck lowered-- Natalia looked in and saw a woman at the wheel wearing an olive frock, her face shiny and red with sooty eye shadow and long hair dyed pink in ponytails. Her expression was soft, yet coldly determined. "And? Direct hit? Popadali?" Natalia shrugged her shoulders. The woman's expression softened up. She reached into the glove compartment, pulled out a pistol in a leather holster, and threw it towards Natalia who jumped in anxiety as she went to catch it. "Don't go far. Nye daleko!" Natalia opened the holster and looked at the pistol-- she'd fired her father's TT-33 once or twice, but had no real aptitude for it. "Did you live around here? Zhila zdyecj?" Natalia shook her head, gestured a walking motion with her two fingers, then mimed writing in a book. "Ah. School. Schkola." Natalia nodded. The woman rubbed her left pony-tail; she had a terrible habit of chewing on her lip while thinking. "I'll be back. Vernusj. Panimala?" Natalia didn't respond. She understood the woman, but did not believe her. She placed the pistol in the large overalls she'd been given; she looked as if she'd been shrunk by some curse. The woman's face had a few contortions of concern, but they quickly faded away, and the windows of the pick-up truck rose up again. The boy on the cargo bed stared at Natalia as the pick-up truck drove away, his eyes yearning for nothing in particular; he stuck his tongue out.

Going down the promenades, one can see all the buildings covered in slick glass which may glitter if one puts her eyes in all the right places. There were pharmacies, and markets; there were tomatoes and apples suspended in amber. The windows were covered in black soot, corpse-outlines spattered against the walls. The air was still, the air was silent; before now, Natalia had never felt the cold chill of nothingness. This was no mere death, as death always gave way to life-- a decaying body is a return of some sort, or a transformation. Natalia approached a fountain in the middle of a roundabout, and set her fingers to the sharp, dusty exterior of green-yellow glass. Beautiful purple and yellow flowers were trapped beyond the glass, with hot-red stems and deep stalks remaining still, placid, lifeless... they were the flowers her mother would pick up on the mountains during the weekends, and the soldiers would drive her down at the evening time when the darkness made the path too dangerous. Now they're mere symbols, reproducing only the image of themselves, a static figment lost in a moment of time long passed. Natalia took a piece of metal lying beside a car and smashed the glass with untrained flailing, smashing it to a fine powdery dust, smashing the flowers 'till they've become organic shreds, smashing it into bio-mulch to rot in the sweet-smelling wind.

Every breath came in more troubled than the last. She dropped the metal beside her, its length powdery and white like sugar; resonances howled down the steep surfaces of the empty alleyways, a flood of sound for no-one. There were broken chairs and meaningless props on tables, bound by empty walls where moss was breaking through the cracks. Glass crackled 'neath her feet as she walked through rooms once private, their dresses and toiletry freed of any use. Down a broken door, a bridge connected two walkways littered with shattered glass. Natalia stood in the middle of the street, her hand on the holster by her waist, listening to the wind rattle distant metal as it rushed through the open space beneath her. The cars beneath stood behind the lines, without drivers, still waiting for the signal to turn red. Further down the road, in the middle, there stood a giant crater from which a beautiful crystal grow like a tree with sharp amber branches that pierced the road. Where was she? She looked above, but the words of the signs had no more meaning. 'Gospital,' 'magazin,' 'apteka;' without people, they were all just empty rooms dreaming of function. Natalia walked down the bridge, passing through a park littered with beer cans and shadowy figments burnt into the concrete 'neath her feet. She imagined their last moments; they were lost in their own words, their little promises and come-ons, 'till the intolerable heat of the outside world made itself known to their private kingdoms. And in the absence, something is struggling to be born. On a wall beside a toilet stall, three shadowy figments have their arms raised and their mouths wide open.