Petals dance along the Soljed Island Airstrip. Our bus drives alongside the yawning stretch of runway while we incoming Sisters watch saffron yetna petals frolic on the breeze and skate across the asphalt. Pollen wafts skyward, and so do our hopes for the battles to come. This is the bannerwind, the god-sent wind of glory from all the hero stories, filling our wings. After so many red-snowed winters, this is the blossoming of our victory. By summer, all bayonets will be plowshares and the Land of Clear Lakes will feast, so long as her people all do their part. I know that I will.
Between the twists in the chain-link fence enclosing the airstrip, we spy a squadron of girls on the tarmac—the Sisters who came before us, judging by their identical olive uniforms. We cup our hands to the windows, all twenty of us, and goggle at this glimpse of our task to come. The girls wave yetna fronds in salute, look skywards, and we on the bus gasp to see a shining colossus lift off the airstrip on a plume of jet fire, wings unfolding to saddle the wind. The force of his liftoff rattles the bus, and when we look back, he is already gone, a smoke-trail scything towards the sun.
The spectacle of it, the thump of it against my chest, squeezes the breath from my lungs. Soon that will be me! Soon I will be in formation on that same tarmac, saluting my gleaming Brother as he rockets off to triumph on the front lines. We, being only schoolgirls, cannot fight ourselves, but in this way we contribute to the war effort. We squeal with excitement until the officer driving orders us to quiet down. We cannot help it. We feel adult-tall in our new uniforms. We itch to roll up our sleeves and ruin them with sweat. Though the military reports every day that we are nearing victory, we young patriots are eager to end the bloodshed that much quicker.
Only one of us is not smiling. The girl beside me, Naslia. Like everyone else, we met only days ago, but we are fast approaching friends.
“What’s the matter?” I ask. “Aren’t you excited?”
She cannot seem to lift her eyes from her shoes. “They should have enough Sisters for all the Brothers,” she murmurs. “If that’s so, why do they need us?”
I’m not sure how to answer that. But then, it’s not my place to do so, so my conscience is cleared. I squeeze her knee and say, “trust always in the Motherland,” the catch-all answer we save for difficult questions. We are not thinkers, not strategists. No, as the Forever King teaches us, it is the rightful duty of men to lead, to dream, and the duty of girls to obey and provide. We are weavers and seamstresses. Menders of holes and meal-makers. We are the Spider Sisters Unit, and it is through our efforts that this war will be won.
Once we arrive at the airbase, we are led off the bus by a new officer and lined up on the lawn to meet our new Brothers.
There is one for each of us. Staring up at all seven feet of them, I feel some of Naslia’s unease. The Firefly Brothers are bigger than I had imagined, each a steel-plated war-machine on elephantine legs. Their mighty wings cast us in shadow. The only humanity left to them is their head, jutting baldly from between armored shoulders like a toe through an old sock. Yet the Brothers expect smiling faces, so that is what we give them. We curtsy as we were trained to do and introduce ourselves. Hello, Brother, I’m Eloeve. I’m Shoglia. I’m Naslia. Our trepidation lifts when shy smiles break out on their youthful blushing faces. They are children, same as us, albeit steel-jacketed. Fresh out of the aug-factory, they have not yet tasted the battle that will make them men.
“Hello,” I say, “my name is Chieve,” but my new Brother does not mirror my smile. The face ensconced in a nest of hydraulics is handsome yet sad, as if he wants dearly to be elsewhere. He cannot turn his head, so he stubbornly turns his eyes away from mine. I feel a tingle of foreboding. I had never considered that he might reject me. Neither can I imagine what would happen if he does.
Nevertheless, I reply his coldness with warmth. “I’m so happy to meet you, big Brother,” reciting from the script we have all memorized, my tone perfect, my smile precise. “I can’t wait to care for you.”
In the Land of Clear Lakes, the ideal woman is gracious even facing discourtesy. She must be soft enough to rest one’s head upon and beautiful enough to display in the home, not unlike a pillow. She is someone who can keep house and conversation both. It was for these qualities that I was selected for this unit. It is not my pride but rather the medical determination of the military that I embody the feminine ideal down to the angle of my anklebone relative to the arch of my heel, to the sard hue of my blushing cheek.
Firefly Brothers are weapons, while we Spider Sisters are the hands that keep them clean, fed, and oiled. Beginning today, we are to care for them as we would our own siblings, knitting silk to keep them warm and comfortable, managing their quarters as a spider fusses over its web, all while serving as a tangible reminder of what they’re fighting for. Should the Over-Mountain Foe overrun our country, all that we Spider Sisters are and all that we represent will be lost forever.
For that, I am proud to wear the Spider Sister insignia upon my shoulder, a web spanned across a silver shield. Wanting to serve my country but being only a girl, this is as close to a soldier as I can be. The silk this girl spins will be as steel in defense of the Motherland. If my Brother decides he does not want me, so be it. I will not give up so quickly.
We may be Brothers and Sisters now, but that is not to say we live together; the military forbids cohabitation in the Brothers’ quarters. We Sisters spend our nights at a dormitory a kilometer outside the airbase; each morning we are bussed in, and each evening, bussed out. While the Firefly Brothers are away at daily flight training, we tie up our hair and tend to their quarters, making their massive shock-absorbing beds, cleaning their voluminous khaki uniforms; everything a Brother cannot do with his clumsy hydraulic paws. It is backbreaking labor, but we smile to ourselves all the same. It is as we are taught: work is joy, and joy is work.
After sundown, we provide company, as Brothers are forbidden to fraternize outside of training. We entertain them with stories, songs, and music. I myself play the reed flute proficiently while Naslia has a talent for the quiverharp. Her fear, I should say, was unfounded: she and her Brother, Dazjai, have grown as close as twins in less than a week.
Yet my own Brother remains obstinately cold. He says nothing when I greet him in his quarters at sundown with supper steaming. He will not tell me where the dirt is worst when I open my toolbox and carve the grime from his joints. I would not even know his name were it not stenciled across his riveted pectoral. Kogjai, which means Bright Flyer. I suspect this is a military appellation, not what his mother gave him, but he will not tell me either way.
With each passing day I cannot help but grow more anxious. The war may be almost won, but my duty haunts me all the same. By the week’s end, I have had enough. I can hear my Sisters and their Brothers laughing through the walls. I need a way to open my Brother up to me, to get past the armor he puts between us. If I cannot do that, to inspire him towards triumph with my grace, I will have failed my country. I will have failed as a woman. But what can I do, when he is as distant to me as the sky? These tools of mine, these hooks and chisels, will do me no good. Neither will my music, my lilting little songs. But spiders do not always spin webs. Sometimes they go hunting.
I have come up with a plan.
We Spider Sisters cannot leave our dormitory unless in case of emergency. We carry military secrets in our heads now, the intimate workings of our Firefly Brothers. The Over-Mountain Foe would do anything to know what we know. There will not be any emergencies, as the officers assure us we will win the war, but the rule stands. We are, however, permitted to make requests of the officers. Three evenings after passing a note to the officer who guards us while we sleep, I return to my bunk to find a tape-sealed cardboard box at the foot of my bed. I tear into it and survey the contents as a soldier would assess their arsenal. Dried sweetmaggots, gibbonfruits, claspnuts soaked in brine—all my hometown staples.
Except for the sugar, oddly; common blue sugar. “I heard the military needs it all for the soldiers,” Naslia whispers, when I show her the box, “because the land for it is gone.” That can’t be right. The war is proceeding smoothly, the military tells us, and the enemy is far from our farmlands. An oversight then, on the officer’s part, and no matter: there are many dishes in just these ingredients. Some girls sing prettily, others know a thousand jokes, but cooking was always my pride. These hands only make delicious things.
Getting it to my Brother is another matter. Outside food is forbidden to the Firefly Brothers. Bridging the metabolical conflict between their organic and mechanical halves demands strict dietary requirements, but I don’t see how a taste of home cooking can hurt. There is still a curd of human afloat in all that alloy.
A Spider Sister must be subtle in her spinning. In exchange for my once-weekly chocolate ration, Naslia agrees to smuggle the other things I need inside her quiverharp case. Being girls, we are only perfunctorily searched, and sure enough, I pass through with no more than a look up and down. That evening, my Brother returns to his cell as marble-faced as ever. When the scent of my cooking hooks him by the nose, his expression fractures. It is as if he were sleeping with his eyes open until now. He gasps, blinks, and asks in a fragile voice—
“Is that dipyat?”
It is. I open the clay pot and let the aroma billow over him. Rice fried with sweetmaggots, spiced with claspnut shavings, as a bed for pickled lemons. I put on my sweetest smile and defy him not to be tantalized. “For you, big Brother.”
He hesitates in the doorway. Then he sits. His bulk makes that a process. I am patient. He watches me ladle dipyat into a cup for myself and a bowl for him. He does not respond when I offer to feed him. Instead, he accepts my help pinning a spoon between his pincers.
“Are you from Yumint?” he asks, before the first bite. His voice is so soft. The mewl of a kitten trapped in a machine. It will never mature. He has no testicles left to drop.
I nod, spoon in mouth. “That’s right.”
“I am too.”
Then my Brother is quiet again, focused on shoveling food to his lips without spilling. His augmented body might house powerful weapons, but his sturdy arm with its three insufficient digits has all the flexibility of a steam shovel. I hadn’t known we came from the same region, but I sense it’s not the moment to talk about it. For a time, there is only the sound of our chewing and his gears struggling internally, a compulsive cogwork chatter. Finally, the pot is empty. I am still a little hungry, but I am full of satisfaction.
This is how I will win. This is how we will win.
My brother speaks again. “This tastes like home. I haven’t had it in...” he trails off, unable to recall all the years it must have been. “Can you... make it again?”
His plea is fearful, desperate for somewhere safe to land.
I catch it in another smile, and this time, it is real.
“Of course, big brother. Whenever you like.”
In the days following our first meal, my Brother learns to share his time with me. His name, he tells me, is Kogjai. For an hour each day we are allowed into the airbase’s side yard. There, we walk and talk together, turning its four short chainlink walls into one continuous journey.
Kogjai shows me all the things in the yard that he likes. Two warring ants’ nests provide riveting drama for him. There is a bird nest in one tree; he looks forward to seeing those blue eggs hatch. It is wonderful that he can enjoy such simple things, though it is sad, too, that he can only like things in this little yard. His world is so small, and yet he is always finding new things in it, the way a child can doodle endlessly on a single sheet of paper, tucking detail within detail even if they cannot stray outside the page.
I had often wondered what my Brother would be like. Would he be boisterous and brave? Would he be quick-tongued, with a wit that could tickle a laugh from anyone? But Kogjai is none of those. He is quiet. Watchful. He considers everything that he intends to say. He sees things no-one else would look for.
On these walks or over supper, he shares with me morsels of himself, as if he fears I’ll choke on too much at once. He never had a sister, or much of a family at all. They died during the Sweeping Fever, a plague that disappeared his village and missed mine by scant kilometers. He wandered until a government boys’ home took him in. They fed him, clothed him, and when the war demanded him, he agreed to become their weapon.
It is unavoidable, the war. His mission is stapled to his bones. But together it is easier to think about other things. To appreciate the hidden treasures of his little yard. In one corner, where the grassy plot meets the airstrip, there stands a yetna tree, its brindled bark fraying into a hundred saffron boughs. Its canopy is bald in places, and I remember seeing its branches wave when I arrived, but it is still a dignified creature. The yetna tree is a symbol of our country; her bark deflects most blades, as do we, and she may blossom even in winter, just as the Land of Clear Lakes thrives in the shadow of our enemy.
“A nuwa rides that yetna tree,” Kogjai tells me. “Dazjai told me, during training. He says another boy told him. I suppose you’ll tell someone else, now that I’ve told you.”
I nod, seeing the tree in a new light. The rumor of a Nuwa is something to take seriously. Children of my country are taught that sometimes a god may descend from the Land of Onyx Skies to take a steed, be it stone, a river, a tree, even a person, and with it herd human history as we herd cattle. It is known that one such nuwa rides our Forever King, granting his leadership divine infallibility. The war may have ground on for years, but we can be certain he will lead us through it.
“She is here to bless our mission,” my brother says, and even then, a windblown petal somersaults across his shoulder. “Or so I’m told. If you beg a gift from the Nuwa Of The Tree using all your heart, she may grant it.”
“Have you wished for anything, big brother?”
My Brother closes his eyes, and is silent for a time.
“There. I just did.”
“What did you wish for?”
“That you grow taller, so I won’t worry about tripping over you.”
It is the first time I’ve seen him smile, and the first time he’s heard me laugh. And I think to myself, the military is kind to bring us together. He and I are gifts to one another. Surprises to unwrap, as we strive together towards victory and glory.
Though the days with my Brother are sunny, rumors persist like stubborn storm clouds. The officers tell us nothing, but we hear things nonetheless. Gossip purportedly from the frontlines; whispers of defeats. Such nonsense is easy to dismiss, but the shortages are not. I am no longer able to replenish my store of claspnuts, and one evening when I break a chisel, I am ordered to borrow from another Sister. “Resources are being moved to the front for a new, decisive offensive,” the officer informs me. Trust in the Forever King, I remind myself frequently, and think on what you still have.
I still have Kogjai, of course, and my duty.
It is fascinating how we discover new aspects of ourselves in one another. To me, he is a glass through which the everyday comes in to beautifying clarity. I sense that for him, I help soften the experience of living half-machine. He shares the names he gave to the eggs in the nest, and I teach him a song. He lifts me up to watch deer graze on a distant hill, and I show him how to cook a little, though his pincers are too clumsy for all but the simplest tasks.
“I thought I would only ever kill with these,” he remarks, carefully ladling boribori sauce over a pot of steaming maggots.
“You may still,” I joke. “You forgot to add the dhania. Next time I’ll write it on your hand.”
One night after supper I play the flute for him, and he surprises me by striking up a rhythm, drumming a gonglike percussion on his knee. It is a meandering and discordant tune, but that is okay—it something neither of us would have had without the other.
Before, I would wake each day excited to serve the Motherland, to use my body as a wrench, tightening the bolts that hold her together, making her stronger. Now, I go to bed looking forward to seeing my Brother again. It is my honor to be used; it is a joy to be wanted.
Naslia too has grown inseparable from her Brother. If they were any closer, the officers would have to pry them apart. Every evening in the dormitory, we stay up to tell each other about our days. On and on she goes, about how funny and interesting her Dazjai is. “After the war,” she tells me, whispering, “he wants to join the Forever King’s guard. Can you imagine that? He will be a hero, and I will be his little sister!”
“You talk about him like he’s your real brother,” I note, to which she can only blush.
Naslia is snoring before long, but I find that I can’t sleep. Not with all these new worries buzzing in my head. The order for Kogjai to deploy may come any moment. I had not considered how little time we might have together. I had not thought it would matter to me. I should be glad, for soon he will soar on wings of fire, downing enemy airships with the weaponry housed in his body. But what comes after? I had not considered that.
And as I dwell on this, his postbellum epilogue, I find myself hoping there is a role for me there. I never had a sister, he’d told me. I hadn’t told him I’d never had a brother either. But I do now, I think. At least, I hope.
It is several more days before I gather the courage to ask him. After all this is over, and the enemy defeated, what will you do? What do you want to be?
I’d daydreamed many possible answers, but not silence. His eyes fall away from me, and the face I’d worked so hard to tease open snaps shut again like a trap I did not know I could spring. He eats what I’ve made him but does not say a word, and no matter what I try, I am unable to open him up again.
That night I leave red-faced, halfway to tears. I’ve done something wrong, and I don’t know what.
Two days later, one of my Brother’s squadron is killed.
None of us are there to see it. We Spider Sisters only know that something has happened when the officers take us away from our mid-day chores and sequester us in a supply room for two stifling hours. The rest of our duties that day are cancelled, and we are escorted to the bus without our things. Nevertheless, bits of information make their way back to us, tiptoeing like flies across the web of gossip spun between us.
On the ride home, we compare what we think we know. One girl says an officer let something slip. Another says she saw it happen. Where we agree is that a brother tried to desert. His name was Nunjai—Quiet Flyer. He was in the yard with his Sister when she turned her back to pick a flower. In that instant he engaged his engines and took flight. Naslia heard he made it halfway to the horizon before an anti-air gun shot him down. Where he crashed, there arose a great plume of fire, as if everything inside him, packed in where the liver and lungs and heart would go, were heavy ordnance.
A shiver rattles through me like a cart on loose wheels. I did not know there were anti-air guns nearby. The government insists we are far from the frontlines. If that is true, I don’t want to imagine what the guns could be for.
The girls chatter on. Theories grow increasingly fantastical. As I try not to imagine the worst, I notice a second bus overtaking us on the road. Squinting through two sets of dusty windows, I make out several officers aboard but only one passenger. I can’t be sure, but I think it might be a girl. I count the girls in my bus off with my fingers. Naslia, Eloye, Shoglia—we are nineteen altogether. One short.
We find the second bus waiting outside our dormitory. The officers make us wait there in the parking lot and refuse to tell us anything. Arranged like cookies on an asphalt oven and forbidden to speak, we kick dust; hot, bored, and afraid. Our uniforms made us feel as tall as women, but we are reminded now that we are not. We are girls dressed like soldiers.
Finally, the dormitory door slams open. Two officers come stomping out. They have a girl between them in the olive drab of a Spider Sister, carrying a cardboard box full of her things. Her face is bloodless and tear-streaked. As I feared, it is Nunjai’s little Sister. Her name is Chuvoye, but her bunk is far from mine, so we have rarely spoken. In the dormitory, your closest friends are those your whispers can reach in the dark.
Even so, something possesses me to step out of the crowd and ask her, “What happened? What did you do?”
An officer takes her by the arm, wrenching her away. But as they herd her onto the bus, Chuvoye glances back at me, her lips twisting with what I recognize only later, when she is long gone, as hate.
“I was a good little sister!” she shouts. “I was a bad citizen. I told him to run away.”
An officer claps his hand over her mouth before she can reveal any more.
The doors hiss shut behind her.
The officers order us inside. Just this once we disobey, lingering to watch the bus dissolve into the dust. I am certain that we are, all of us, fumbling with the questions she contemptuously scattered at our feet.
Run away? Where? Why?
What is there to flee but victory and glory?
It is undeniable now. The war is drawing closer.
The dormitory radio reports that all is well. We are winning battle after battle, and fleets of Firefly Brothers from across the Motherland are proving themselves heroes. And yet, the mounting anxiety amongst the officers tells a different story. They share nothing with us, but they whisper loudly to themselves. Regardless of our military success, the frontlines are contracting. The enemy has crossed the mountains to raid into our territory. Trust the Motherland, I urge myself, but I am not sure which Motherland to trust more: the one that assures me the war is almost won, or the one that now orders us to run air-raid drills every morning.
The contradiction haunts us all. Naslia and I no longer gossip before bed. The bus grows quieter by the day. Our time in the yard is cut in half. We are told that our Brothers require additional training. We know then that their moment is coming soon. A week from now, or three days, or one, we will gather along the airstrip to see them off, cheering as they rocket towards what we are told is victory. I remember how only weeks ago I could not wait for that day to come. Now I’m not so sure. I am coming to fear the future. The post-war life with Kogjai that I have begun imagining for myself has never felt so brittle.
Kogjai goes through his day like an automaton. He’s begun to talk again, to laugh, but not as much and always hollowly. When I polished his armor before, I could feel the ghost of his heart beating through, but now, no matter how I scrape at his seams I cannot coax my Brother from inside.
One evening, I show him that I have made dipyat. I don’t know how else to unlock him. As I ladle rice and maggots into a bowl, he stills me with a touch.
The sound of my name in his voice stuns me.
“You asked what I want to be,” he says.
“I would like to be a poet.”
A solemn nod. “You showed me that I can make things. You helped these hands be softer than steel.” A dragging pause. “My head is full of words. I want to make something out of them.”
I open my mouth to encourage that dream, but he raises a claw to silence me.
“I am a bomb.”
I freeze, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“There are no weapons inside of me. I am full of volatiles. I am not designed to fight. My function is to steer myself at enemy ships and explode.”
I have gone all cold. My blood is nowhere in me. That can’t be true.”
“It is,” Kogjai says, his gaze unflinching. “They tell you Sisters one thing and us another, because we need to know. The Over-Mountain Foe has greater weapons than even us. Flying titans of flesh and steel. They have what we pretend to be. Our airships are useless against them. The only way we can fight back is to give up our lives.”
I shake my head, as if that will wake me up from this reality. “No, no. The Motherland wouldn’t ask that. Someone must have told you an awful lie.”
Kogjai breathes out heavily. “I am going to be deployed tomorrow. The officers will probably tell you later tonight. We are not winning this war, Chieve. No matter how many of us we throw at our foe, it is not enough to stop their advance. So you can see, the Motherland has greater need of her sons than ever. She needs us to burn brightly for a moment and be remembered forever. To fly on fire, then become fire.”
Now I understand why Chuvoye did what she did. Her Brother was the first to break and tell the truth. It is easy to proclaim loyalty, to say that one could never betray the Motherland because we love her and she loves us. But forced to pick between such a great thing as a nation and such a small thing as a brother, I find my choice is even easier.
“No,” I hear myself say. “No.”
Tears begin to sheet down my face. “You can’t go,” I sob, the treason scalding on my tongue. “I’ll help you escape. I don’t know how, but somehow. Let the others fight the war. We’ll go back to Yumint. We can get a house together and be a real family. I know it’s hard for you, but I can take care of you.”
“I can’t do that. If I leave, the enemy will win. They will come and destroy everything. They will kill our Forever King and make our country ugly with their bombs. They will kill everyone, and they will rape you to death. That’s what the officers say. Before I met you, I did not care what they did with me. I had no family. No dreams. But now... now I have a little sister.”
I want to scream at him that I am not worth dying for. I am not an ideal woman. I am a normal girl, not a piece of art, not a national treasure, not the darling creature created in his mind. But then it occurs to me—it was me who wove that image. And I wove it too well.
It all clicks together then. The pieces were all there, merely hair-widths apart. I am not here to care for my Brother. I was not given a uniform to prepare meals and make beds. They don’t need schoolgirls to stoke the fires of patriotism. I am an accessory. The only thing the military could not make steel was Kogjai’s head—his mind, his soul. Our technology could not replicate that irreducible bit of natural engineering. It takes human wit to steer his payload towards its destination. But with wit comes will. What’s to keep him from running away, the officers must have wondered. Not the fear of being shot down. No. It would require something stronger even than the fear of death. A force beyond national loyalty, that can keep a winged man in an open cage. Ingenuity can put a Firefly Brother in armor, but it can’t make him obey.
That is love.
Sick with horror, I cannot speak. I do not react as Kogjai takes my hand in one claw and drops a piece of folded paper into my palm. My fingers reflexively conceal it.
Two officers enter moments later, and I am escorted out.
All nineteen Spider Sisters are sent home early. The bus is full, but we are each alone, sequestered in our own loss. Naslia is sobbing snottily into her hands. Others are not so quiet. Their brothers must have told them the truth as well. After Nunjai’s death, it must have become impossible to keep in. The window beside me is a black mirror. Staring at my stricken reflection, the gray tear-bruises under my eyes, I realize—I am far from the perfect woman after all. The feminine ideal holds no hate, but I now hate many things.
I hate the Land of Clear Lakes. I hate the military and the Forever King, for turning love into a war resource like jet fuel, sending the foolish on one-way flights. I hate the enemy for being better, for being so powerful that the only way we can fight back is to smash the best of ourselves to pieces against their chests. To make bullets of our lives. But most of all I hate myself, for being the opposite jaw of that vice, crushing brave boys against that immovable wall until they burst. There is killing power in my Brother’s chest, but we Sisters are no less deadly. I am silk draped over steel. I am a secret weapon too.
I do not look at what my Brother gave me until I am in bed with the lights out. I unfold the scrap of paper and hold it to a sliver of moonlight coming through the barred window. My Brother’s handwriting is shapeless. A child’s earnest scrawl. He must have worked so hard to put mind to paper.
The ants have the whole earth beneath them, but would rather fight each-other
The eggs could have wings, but would rather nest together
I have both, and still I would rather stay
But I am not them
The words are shaped like a wing. Strong but bound to the surface, willfully going nowhere.
I leave my bed and tiptoe to the window. I grip the bars and stare down the road to the airbase. I close my eyes and annul the distance, imagining myself prostrate before the yetna tree, the earthly steed of the nameless nuwa who watches over brothers and sisters. Mine is a wordless prayer, an inarticulate begging. I want the war to stop. I want him back on the ground. I want everyone to die but us.
For this, I offer everything. I hold nothing back. All I want is any future but tomorrow.
Is that too much for a god to give?
Come the morning we are roused early and made to dress. We are told to leave our things.
There is no speaking on the bus. At the airstrip, we are ordered to different spots along the fence. Planted on the asphalt, I scan the sky for airships. Kogjai said the Over-Mountain Foe is coming to bomb us all. If that is true, perhaps this will be the day for it. I would rather be destroyed than face what is to happen next.
An officer passes out branches for us to hold. Their saffron buds look familiar. I wait to see his back before I twist to squint at the nuwa’s tree distantly visible through the fence. The lush boughs that comprised the godling’s saddle are all gone now. There is nothing left but a naked stick.
My branch is already shedding petals.
The first of our Brothers appears on the airstrip. An officer gives a whistled signal, and we begin to cheer. Many of us are crying. Naslia, beside me, can barely stand. My eyes, at least, are dry. There is nothing unfair in this. I see that now. The Motherland promised us nothing but work. The rest we made up in our heads. Little girls playing house with hand grenades. There was no better future we could have had. If only.
I keep a look out for my Kogjai, but with their flight helmets on, they all look the same. I think I see my brother charging down the runaway, but then fire gushes from his thrusters, and a gritty wind clogs my eyes, and then he is aloft, gaining altitude, and I am not sure if it was him, and if it was, he is too far away now to ever know for sure.
We Spider Sisters bawl our farewells as our Brothers vanish one by one, swallowed whole by the burning blue. We cheer through tears, call their names, and wave our yetna branches as we were told to do, and the bannerwind takes the petals and twirls them through the air, giving them their moment to be beautiful before letting them flutter to the ground in graveyard spirals, vanishing into the grass, where they will never fly again.
We return to the dormitory. Only eighteen of us get off the bus. The officers carry Naslia out on a stretcher. A clever girl, she’d smuggled a chisel out of the base and, in the back of the bus, alone and unnoticed, used it to slit her wrists. I imagine the potholes rocking her off to something like sleep and tell myself it was peaceful.
An officer informs those remaining that we will not be going home tomorrow, as planned. We performed our task so gloriously well, they tell us, and we are already so highly trained, and the Motherland is so proud at our service, that we will instead be assigned to new Brothers from a new squadron. And I think, here is the true cruelty. Everything I have done, I must do again. I suppose hell cannot be endless if it does not repeat.
The next day we are brought to the field outside the airbase. My new Brother is named Moenjai. Honest Flyer. He grins widely when he sees me and blushes when I curtsy.
Wincing in the glare of his new armor, I consider my arsenal, the tools left to me, this harmless girl. I can try to tamper with his mechanisms, perhaps disable him on the eve of flight. I can sabotage him in some dietary way, disrupt that finicky metabolism. But of course, these small impairments could be corrected. They turn these boys into machines because machines can be repaired. Only the will is inimitable.
Bent low before Moenjai I don my most charming smile. I am a Spider Sister. Let me spin a soft deceit. Let my silk mask my intent.
My new Brother adjourns to his training, and I go to make his lunch. I fill my pot with the last of my rice and sweetmaggots, things I know he’ll love. These I garnish with dirt from the yard, live ants from the mound, and crumplings of yetna petals, whose gold is as sour as piss. I heap on every vile thing I have and stir them into a slurry.
My venom will dissolve him from the inside. I will poison him, if I can, but most crucially, I will be as cold as steel armor. His joy will fray when he tastes this dish, and every one after it, and however he may beg, he will get nothing delicious from me. If love is a web, spun to constrict and control, I will spin mine no more. These hands will never again make last meals.