Trial of the Bull



Mina slept through most of the trip. She only woke up when she felt the gravitational jolt as the transport started altering its trajectory for the entrance procedure into the atmosphere of Aegean, the only satellite of Aldebaran’s only planet. Peeking out the tiny octagonal window next to her seat, Mina saw that Aldebaran was huge and red, bigger than any other star she had seen, although she was unaware that such an impression was mostly due to the proximity to that red sun. In her eleven years of life, Mina had seen bigger stars, but she had never been so near one as she was now. From her birth until she was six years old, Mina lived on the seventh planet from Celaeno, a binary system where the main and closest star to the planet was a calming white-blue disk in the violet day sky. The stars in all the other solar systems in the Pleiades to which she had to flee with her dad looked pretty much the same in their relatively small size in the sky, cold colors and mild brightness.


When the bombs started falling on Celaeno 7, they fled to Alcyone 9 and lived in an apartment for six months. When the war spread to Alcyone 9, they sought shelter in a refugee camp in Taygeta 5 for two years. When they got the money to get out of the hellhole that the whole Pleiades had become, their ship was diverted to Merope 8, where they were stranded in a bunker for six months until they could flee again, but this time only as far as Electra 7. That’s where the Post-War Emergency Relief social workers found Mina, wandering alone in the ruined streets and squatting in crumbling or completely destroyed buildings dilapidated by the blasts of bombs and missiles and the desperation of scavengers. After spending a few weeks in a screening and triage camp for children, the social workers tucked her into the transport headed to Aldebaran. In their farewell, they said that she was the luckiest kid in the Taurus quadrant. Mina found that concept insulting, as she envied the kids in the triage camp that had the energy to scream, wail and whimper. She observed the havoc they created from a corner with the other quiet kids who were past that point.


The worlds in the Pleiades were cold with their distant, bland stars. The Pleiades had nothing in common with the hellish monster of flames that was Aldebaran. It made Mina nervous. However, for her relief, that monstrosity was slowly disappearing from her sight, as its only planet - a gas giant that only showed its dark side - started eclipsing the star. Even if the red light was progressively diminishing with the planet’s transit in front of Aldebaran, Mina couldn’t take her eyes off the still formidable red light that remained until a voice interrupted her mesmerized state.


“Would you like a complimentary drink before we land?” asked a passing flight attendant. Apparently Mina was in what was called a First Class seat, which were the best seats anyone could have on an interplanetary transport and that was one of the reasons the social workers said that she was lucky. The seat was the best bed she had slept on in many years. It was probably even better than her bed in their house in Celaeno 7 before the war started, but she couldn’t remember very well how it felt, or even what it looked like. She did remember though that it was a warm bed in a warm house in a cold yet peaceful world. In those days on Celaeno 7, her dad would smile for reasons other than just to comfort her. His later war-time smile was cold, worn and forced. It would creep up in his face as a clumsily carved, twisted indentation in ice. But his smile in Celaeno 7 was warm. It didn’t project strength or reassurance, only love. She remembered that smile, straightforwardly facing her, and how it would get broader when she wasn’t misbehaving. But she also remembered that smile in an angled position. Her dad smiling to someone else.


To him.


“Maybe some juice, honey?” insisted the attendant. She was smiling. A half-hearted smile: half from the cold pits of an employee’s handbook, half from the warm pity in her heart. The attendant knew from where she was coming. She had seen that cold/warm smile before, in the faces of the staff at the triage camp when they offered to wash and feed her. They did wash and feed her, but not with smiles on their faces, and not with her permission. Mina shook her head, refusing the drink. And yet, her throat was dry. So were her lips. Dry lips don’t smile. She turned her attention back to the window as she realized that she loved her dad and missed him, but neither his cold smile nor his warm smile.


Aldebaran was now mostly obfuscated by the dark side of the giant gas planet, becoming little more than a sliver of red light that was still getting narrower as the transporter performed its vertical descent onto the satellite orbiting the gas giant planet. With the loss of altitude, Mina could finally see some of Aegean’s surface: a vast bare, brown, somewhat hilly landscape with sparsely distributed craters. Those craters weren’t the product of meteors. Mina could remember her dad telling her that the first targets of the Pleiades war were areas rich with minerals, and the second ones the areas that were fertile enough for agriculture. Her dad would say that because the man he smiled to back in their days in Celaeno 7 had traveled to the mines of that satellite for what was supposed to be just a few days.


They had wondered if the war had affected the Aldebaran system as well, as they knew how rich in minerals Aegean was. What they ignored was that the war was confined to the Pleiades, and the rest of the Quadrant and beyond had left them to rot there. The holes in the surface of Aegean were a product not of the explosives of war, but of the drills of prosperity.


The transport descended quickly, and Mina had only a few seconds to see the expanse of a city built on a mesa. The urban sprawl was composed of a chaotic array of tall buildings covered in dusty and sometimes rusty metal plates that sprung haphazardly from the ground. Urban chaos was also the pattern of mining cities in the Pleiadean worlds Mina had seen while she was on the run with her dad, as those cities would pop up just after the discovery of the mineral riches under the surrounding ground. Mina hated those cities. They were often the target of bombs, and when they were not, it was because one of the factions had prevailed through battles to ensure a strong hold on them, meaning that if you were not a soldier or a miner your purpose was to serve soldiers or miners. Mina and her dad were neither.


In this mining city of Aegean, however, there were some differences. The buildings were taller and clearly never affected in their structure by war, but paradoxically, the city seemed even more chaotic than the war-ridden ones from the Pleiades. The space between buildings was composed by narrow, tortuous streets of what was certainly a labyrinth of a city that had to squeeze itself into the scarce flat space at the top of the mesa in order to not fall over the tall walls around its edges. The spaceport’s tarmac seemed to be the only relatively unencumbered surface in the city. Most of the tarmac was covered by cargo transports that were being loaded to the brim with the local valuable ore. A small stretch of the tarmac was connected to the metallic box hangar of a terminal on which was written in big white letters “NEW KNOSSOS SPACEPORT”, and that’s where the transport landed.


The other passengers stood up from their seats, picking up their suitcases from the luggage compartment by the ceiling. Mina didn't have any baggage, but following the flow and becoming one with a group, even when she didn't belong, had saved her life many times. So without giving it a second thought, she mimicked the other passengers and walked out of the spaceship, through a narrow corridor that led to a vast area where a standing crowd was facing them.


Some in the crowd were bored, others irritated, others impatient even though displaying a jittery smile. She didn’t detect in any of these faces the kind of expression she was used to finding in the faces of an expecting crowd: desperation at food-ration lines, at gates of shelters and bunkers.


A woman who had traveled three seats behind her suddenly ran toward the crowd and clashed in a big hug against another woman, who kissed her passionately. One of the first men who disembarked met a woman as uptight as he was and shook her hand firmly. And then Mina saw him. He was in the second or third row of the crowd. It was easy to see him because he towered over everybody else. She looked to the ground as soon as she realized that he was there for her. The sight of him was a flash, the shapeless glimpse of something big, hence dangerous, that she felt the urge to avoid. But it was too late. He saw her.


Mina kept walking, as all the others who disembarked were walking. She walked until she reached the crowd and the large man used his big hands to shove aside not so delicately the people who were standing in his way. Mina only stopped when there was no more ground in front of her. When she was facing a broad, barreled chest wrapped in a buttoned denim jacket. She didn’t dare to look up at his face. She was close enough to smell him. Sweaty, almost musky. These odors were akin to the men of the same height and girth she had met in the past year. Some were miners like him. Most were soldiers. All of them hurt her someway, somehow. That she did remember. That she could not forget, despite her efforts. And with the memories of those men in mind, she felt his heavy forearms landing against her back and dragging her toward him. She didn’t squirm. She didn’t resist. Her memories warned her that resisting would bring only more pain, even though there was nothing painful in this man’s gentle holding of her body against his.


Mina stood still until she felt some drops landing on her forehead and she couldn’t help herself anymore. She craned her neck, and her eyes met his gaze. She saw his big, warm face, covered in a fuzzy red beard that framed a smile as well as his two tiny emerald eyes locked on her. Those eyes were wet, showering her with tears.


“I missed you so much, Mimi,” Bull said in his deep voice.


Bull. Yes. That was how her dad called him. The man her dad smiled to when he wasn’t smiling at her in Celaeno 7. The man she wanted to forget but still could somewhat remember. Mimi. That wasn’t her name. Her name was Mina. Sweetie for her dad. The/This/That/A girl for almost everyone else. Mimi existed at some point, she remembered that, but Mimi was dead now. Dead people don’t talk, hence, Mina stayed quiet. Bull took a step back as he wiped the tears off his face with a beefy fist while he kept his other hand on one of her shoulders.


“You grew up!” he said, with a goofy smile.


The idea of growing never passed through Mina’s head, but she remembered that just a few weeks ago, some of the medical staff talking between themselves as if she was not in the room. They mentioned that she had something called stunted growth due to several years of malnutrition. And yet she was about the same size of the other eleven year old girls in the triage camp. Lies, probably, although Mina wasn’t sure why Bull would say that she grew up and the screening camp crew would say the opposite – still a lie. No one had anything to gain from that, and adults usually lied when they wanted something from her, which was usually, but not always, something bad. Her dad, for instance, lied to Mina when he was trying to soothe her about the hopelessness of their situation.


“Are you hungry?” asked Bull.


Mina was hungry. Her last meal was at the triage center. She refused every meal in her spaceflight to Aegean. She hated to do that to herself, but she nodded.



*


Mina and Bull exited the spaceport and walked a few blocks through the narrow sidewalks of the busy, curvy streets of New Knossos. The air was dry and hot and soon her skin was covered in sweat. Her thirst was only getting worse with all that heat. Mina was also struggling to stick up to Bull’s broad steps and to dodge all the persons coming from the opposite direction. Mina was fascinated and somewhat intimidated by the confidence of the pedestrians of Aegean, as they swaggered on their way to whatever places they had to be. The persons in the streets of the Pleiades were either patrolling or skulking. Mina was a skulker, and she was still one on that busy sidewalk of New Knossos. A few times Bull offered her his hand, but she ignored the gesture. One thing that Mina could appreciate about the streets of New Knossos was the blaring noise of traffic, people and construction all around her. On one hand it made it easier for her to not have a conversation with Bull, as she could barely hear what he had to say at all. On the other hand, silent streets creeped her out. The streets of the Pleiades during the war could be very calm, and yet, nobody would hear your screams.


Bull entered through the glass doors of what seemed to be a relatively more upscale building and they followed to an elevator. Mina gulped as the elevator doors closed and she realized she was alone with Bull. She looked up at him from the superior corner of her eyes. His gaze was on her. And again, he was smiling.


“I have some surprises for you,” he said, joyfully. “Ready for the first one?”


The elevator doors opened and they were at the entrance of Artemis’s, a fast food chain restaurant. Mina had totally forgotten about Artemis’s and yet she had been to them so many times. Before the war, of course.


“Your favorite, huh?” said Bull with pride, as he put his big paw on her shoulder.

Mina immediately darted toward the closest table by the door. In part because it was the first one she saw, and that would allow her to flee at least momentarily Bull’s grasp on her without antagonizing him. In part because, being closer to the exit, she intended to run away as soon as he turned his back to her.


“Are you sure you want to sit here, Mimi? It’s quieter in the back, so… we can talk.”


Mina was about to make an excuse for her choice, but for a moment Bull’s eyes focused no more on her, but beyond her.


“I see,” he said, understanding. “I’m gonna grab our food. Are you having the same as usual?”


He winked and walked to the ordering line without waiting for her answer. Mina was about to make a run for it, but she decided, instead, to check what caught Bull’s attention behind her.


As she turned, Mina found out that the table was by a broad window. They were in a very high level of the tower, above most of the skyscrapers. Aldebaran was not even a sliver now, as she had seen from the transport when landing, but just a curved line of red, furious light. That shining bow crossed the sky almost from horizon to horizon. It was lower in the sky than when she arrived and in a few hours they would have a sunset. Or bowset.


“It’s weird, huh?” said Bull, startling her. He was standing by the table, holding a tray with their food. “We are in the inner non-habitable zone of Aldebaran’s solar system, but this satellite’s orbit around the giant gas planet is perfectly timed in a way that we never get more than a little fraction of direct sunlight. If Aegean’s orbit around the planet or the planet’s orbit around the sun were just a little faster or slower than they currently are, this satellite would be too hot or too cold for life. Aron used to say that there is no other place like the Aldebaran system in the galaxy. The odds for that positioning are in the order of one in trillions.”


Mina was fascinated about what Bull said and for a moment forgot that she hated him. And yes, that’s totally something that Aron would say. Aron (or, as she preferred to call him, dad) was a middle school science teacher who liked to teach even when the schools of the Pleiades were nothing more than dust. Mina’s wonderment with the view, the facts and the memory of her dad didn’t last long, as she lowered her gaze to the assortment of food that Bull was carrying as soon as he put it on top of their table while taking a seat on the other side. Fries, a soda and a carton box that read “Artemis’s” and featured their stupid mascot: a purple, grinning alien with two pink horns. A long time ago she used to own a plush doll of that creature. She was too old for dolls now.


“Double BLT cheeseburger,” he said, forcing her to revisit memories of a warmer time that now felt cold because it was long gone.


“I don’t like it anymore,” she said. And yet, she opened the box and took a big bite of the hamburger. She was so hungry.


“I see, you are not a little girl anymore,” pondered Bull.


“More like ground beef being part of most emergency rations,” said Mina, matter-of-factly as she took another bite. That hamburger certainly didn’t taste like whatever passed for ground beef in the rations during the war.


“I’m sorry, I should have asked you where you wanted to eat instead of just assuming that… well… that…” said Bull, a sad frown on his face. He couldn’t finish the sentence.


And that didn’t go unnoticed by Mina. She witnessed him in pain for the first time. His crying at the spaceport was the pouring of tears of joy. Relieved joy. The kind of tears her dad would shed every time they would escape from some danger with their lives, even if they had to leave something precious behind or were forced to carry a new grim memory with them on their journey ahead. The point is that there was a new hunger growing in Mina. She wanted more. More of that pain. His pain.


“So you think that a cheap hamburger would make things right?”


“Oh, no Mimi. Never, I just thought—”


“Thought what? That things could be like before?”


“No, I know, it was a long time ago, you grew up and—”


“My dad is dead, and you did nothing.”


Bull gulped, his eyes were getting glazed. Good.


“I tried so hard to reach out to both of you,” babbled an exasperated Bull - "At first the comm links with the Pleiades were still working, but—”


“Do you want to know how he died?”


“Please, Mimi.” He was shivering now, tears falling from his face. “We should have this conversation, but maybe not now. Let’s just enjoy—”


“We were hiding in the basement of a building in New Marseille when—“


“Mimi, I’m begging you. Please, don’t—”


“Splat! He was crushed flat. Like a hamburger patty.”


Bull stood up and rushed to the restroom, almost trampling over a woman who was passing on his way with two children. Mina took another bite from her hamburger. She chewed, satisfied for once. This would be the perfect moment to run away, but she decided that she was not going anywhere. For once she had power. The one of making Bull suffer. And she was going to use it. She was going to make him cringe and pay for abandoning her and her dad. For being a coward.


*


Mina finished her meal in silence under the puzzled, somber gaze of Bull after he returned from the restroom. They followed in silence to another building a few blocks nearby, a residential one. The elevator took them to a row of apartment doors in a high floor and Bull stopped by one of them.


“I… have another surprise for you,” said Bull, cautiously breaking the heavy silence.


Mina stayed quiet. She was eager and ready to pounce on anything substantive Bull had to say. A surprise was too vague, although she was sure that, if it was like the Artemis’s one, she’d have plenty of chance to turn whatever he had in store against him. Bull opened the door and let the room within speak for itself.


The space that Bull unveiled wasn’t what Mina expected. A whirlwind of emotions assaulted her, battling for dominance: fascination, joy, melancholic longing, outrage, anger. And as none of those prevailed, a surprised shock sneaked through her turmoil of feelings and settled in. She was in the living room of a house. She was expecting an apartment, like the one Mina and her dad moved to in Alcyone 9 after they fled their home in Celaeno 7. The apartment was tiny, with only one bedroom where she slept, while her dad spent his nights on the couch in the living room. She hated her new school, but at least she had a school to go to for a while until the classes were shutdown. They had a shower, water coming from the taps and electricity, even if the power outages would get longer and longer. And they also had access to the zodiacal comm link, so they were able to reach out to Bull. Mina would talk to him for a few minutes every day. She couldn’t remember where those conversations went, so she just assumed their talking was pointless, otherwise she wouldn’t had forgotten what they had to say to each other back then. What she did remember clearly was that her dad would talk for much longer to Bull. They would discuss plans and strategies to get out of not only Alcyone 9 but the Pleiades before it was too late. They got out of Alcyone 9, that she knew, but not before it was too late.


And all of her memories of the apartment in Alcyone 9 had no purpose at the moment, since what she was staring at didn’t look like an apartment at all. It was a house, their cozy, warm, happy home in Celaeno 7. She took a step ahead and touched the big, heavy leather couch by the fireplace. On one side there was the door to the bathroom. On the other, the corridor that lead to her bedroom and to dad’s and Bull’s bedroom. And then… the smell… even the smell was right… the smell of the lavender grass patch that ended at the waters of the azure lake by which their house sat. The lake reflected the white-blue rays of the distant main sun of the Celaeno system, which looked smaller than a quarter in the sky. Mina could see that through the open double glass doors. She forgot where she was. She forgot her shock. She was happy. She was home. She lurched to the backyard.


“Mimi, no!”


Instead of crossing through the doorway, Mina bounced against it and fell on the ground. Bull rushed toward her with concern.


“Are you hurt?” he asked, as his hands approached her.


“Don’t touch me!” she yelled, and Bull complied, surprised. For a moment neither of them said anything. Mina rubbed her forehead where it banged against the fake doorway while Bull stayed on his knees next to her as he fidgeted. His big hands were not only eager, they were anxious to be both helpful and loving. His hands desperately wanted to assist Mina to stand up and hug her and care for her, but they were rendered powerless by her wish, her command to remain untouched. Finally, after a few seconds, Mina spoke.


“What the hell happened?”


“It’s a new technology,” explained Bull as he stood up and grabbed a silvery helmet from a shelf. “The walls of the apartments are covered in a special material infused with nanobots. It can be rendered in any way you want with your mind. In this case, I used my memories of our home in Celae—”


“Undo that,” whispered Mina.


Bull frowned, confused and noticed that Mina had her eyes, suddenly glazed, locked at the picture over the fireplace. Bull was proud of his recollection of that picture, which featured himself and Aron with a five-year-old smiling Mina in front of them. She was wearing the red bow on her head that was her signature attire back in those days of joy.


“I thought you’d like—”


“Undo that!” yelled Mina, and Bull obliged, by pressing a button on the side of the helmet. The leather couch, the wooden walls, the stony fireplace, the large glass windows, the scattered fluffy carpets on the ground… their colors dissipated and their shapes deflated, giving way to a vast rectangular room with white walls. The room was bare except for Mina, Bull and a few features, such as a neat pile of folded blankets and bed linen that had been contained in a now nonexistent cupboard, a few faucets scattered along the walls and a food storage and preparation unit.


“You can shape the walls of the room and create with different textures,” explained Bull with a hint of emotional tiredness in his voice. “That works for most furniture, although not for anything detachable or edible.”


“Sounds expensive.”


“Mining in Aegean pays well.”


“Was it more expensive than a spaceship?”


“Mimi, the Pleiades were gridlocked during the war! Nobody could get out!”


“Did you try to get in?”


Bull clenched his fists. For the first time since Mina arrived he was angry. Mina noticed with febrile excitement Bull’s efforts to conceal and deter that emotion. Yes, more than suffering or sad, she wanted him to be angry. Because angry people hurt others. Especially angry soldiers. Or miners. If he hurt her out of his anger, like more than one miner had done in the Pleiades, she would be sure that all that caring attitude was just a façade for his real self. There was still a glimpse of doubt about his goodness that she desperately wanted to terminate. It was easier to accept the misfortunes in her life when they were unencumbered by doubts. Certainties, unlike doubts, were a great fuel for survival.


“I would if I knew where you were,” grunted Bull.


“You could have found us if you had come and searched.”


“I had a plan with Aron, Mimi. You don’t get it, you are just a kid—”


“Do I look like a kid? You are the one who said I grew up.”


“I had to work triple-shifts to make money to send to you.”


“That must have been so hard.”


“It was in ways that you cannot understand, Mina.”


Mina smiled. There was no way that Bull could know a fraction of her suffering. Unless there was a way to show it to that entitled imbecile. And maybe there was a way, after all.


“Can I give it a shot?”


Bull didn’t understand the question until she looked pointedly at the helmet in his hands. He was more than happy to oblige and hand the device to her.


“It’s really simple, to use you’ll see,” he said, relieved that the discussion turned towards a practical direction. “You just imagine a place, and the computer will render it. Something that you remember or imagine as soft will be soft, something hard, hard—”


He stopped his explanation as Mina put the helmet on her head and the environment started transforming around him. The white room became a dim, windowless gray cubicle. The walls were either slabs of concrete or mountains of debris. Although there wasn’t a single speck of dust, the place managed to smell dusty and, at the same time, damp. But the most unpleasing sensation was the cold. It was chilling in there.


“What’s that place, Mina?”


“I’m not sure,” she said, a half, bitter smile on her lips, her eyes scrutinizing the environment around her as the scar of a terrible wound suddenly busted open again. “Dad and I would talk about that. He thought this place was what was left of an underground garage. I thought it was a boiler room or something like that. It crumbled, mostly, but there was this part that was safe. Dad called this place the ‘vault’ and I lived there for months with him, auntie and Michel.”


“Auntie?”


“She’s a woman we met a few months after we arrived in Electra 7. She hung out with us for a while. And Michel was her son, two years younger than me. Auntie wanted me to call her Mommy.”


“Why didn’t you?”


“Dad told me to call her Auntie. She got mad at him for a while because of that.”


Bull gave a touched, understanding smile. Mina noticed that warm smile. She couldn’t have that.


Thud Thud Thud –- a muffled and distant sound.


“What’s that noise?” asked Bull.


“Bombs. We were fine when in here, the world could burn outside. But then, there was this day when Auntie and Michel were out. It was their turn to scavenge while we kept a watch on our place.”


BOOM! –- a deafening explosion above them, followed by the ceiling caving. To Bull’s perspective, the ceiling was a concrete slab carved with long, shallow cracks. The machinery that powered the room didn’t allow any bit to be loose, but he realized that the real vault in Electra 7 had chunks of concrete and dust raining all around Aron and Mina after that big explosion. And Mina’s memory, conveyed by the room, was to have that fake cracked concrete ceiling lowering itself. It went down and down until it touched the top of Bull’s head and forced him to at first bend, and then bow. He was bowing toward Mina and he would have knelt if the ceiling hadn’t stopped lowering itself after a warning Beep, which, by its turn, was followed by an electronic, dead-pan voice:


“Compression limit reached.”


For a moment they said nothing and remained motionless. Bull was still standing with his back arched, his head propelled forward, his face directed toward the ground. If there were eyes on that ground they would see a face full of shame.


“I am so sorry, Mimi.”


“As I said, like a hamburger patty.”


The ceiling moved up and resumed its normal position, and so did Bull, by straightening his back and looking at Mina. She was apathetic.


“We can start over, Mimi.”


Mina answered by removing the helmet and walking to the pile of blankets. She pulled the one on top and wrapped herself in it. And then she lay on the ground.


“You can render a bed, you know,” informed Bull. Mina ignored him. She hadn’t had a bed for years until the social workers sent her to the triage camp, where her cot was crooked, soft in all the wrong parts and hard were it shouldn’t be. She was comfortable in the spaceship’s seat, though, and she would have rendered a similar seat in there, but she didn’t give that tiny victory to Bull. Besides, the floor somehow, somewhat, felt just right. She could live forever in that ruined room, the only thing missing was her dad – the real one.


“I… think you need a moment alone… I called in sick at the mines, but they can always use me for another shift.”


Mina was tempted to sneer at him, at how he couldn’t’ conceal his greed or how he was a coward who couldn’t confront the truth she was spilling. But either acknowledgment was too good for him. She stayed in silence, although she was listening.


“You can’t render food, so there’s some in that storage unit if you are hungry. You… are a big girl now. You’ll be okay, right?”


No answer.


“I… I will be back in a few hours. I… I hope we can talk this through.” Bull sighed, unsure if he should say the thing that was burning in his throat. He decided to say it. “I love you, Mimi.”


Mina tensed at that and her muscles just relaxed when she heard the front door opening and then closing. She was alone again for the first time since the social workers dragged her out of the streets of Electra 7. That felt right, maybe not good, but right. And she fell asleep.


*


Mina woke up and, as she found herself in the vault on Electra 7, her first impulse was to look around frantically.


“Dad!”


Nobody answered. The stupor of the semi-awake state was gone and the full awareness of where she actually was settled in. She held the helmet in her hands and for a moment she thought about rendering her dad. It would probably just be a statue, and she shooed away the idea as she thought that it would not be much more than a corpse. Her dad’s corpse. Corpses couldn’t answer, neither could they call her Sweetie. Yes, Sweetie, not Mimi like Bull called her. Mimi was dead. Sweetie… was still there, just unavailable for anyone but a person who passed away. Sweetie wasn’t available even for herself.


She lay on the floor again and looked at the fake cracks in the fake concrete ceiling. She got used to the idleness in their vault during the many months they spent there. They were waiting. Not for someone, though. No one good was coming, they had accepted that by then. They were waiting for the war to end. But now Mina was in another war. A war in which she was not a victim, sandwiched in between raging sides. She was one of the sides. She was fighting.


She was lost in those daydreams when she heard a ringing sound, and then the door opened.


Mina was getting ready to go back to her trenches when she realized that the person standing at the door wasn’t Bull. It was a woman, a slender, very elegant one that smiled at her. Mina scanned that woman attentively but, for the first time since she created her gauging system for smiles, she couldn’t tell if hers was warm or cold, although she could say that it wasn’t tepid: there was the intensity of a strong intention in that smile. Her Mediterranean features made her look like she was also a native of the Taurus quadrant, but her allure was of someone from Leo.


“You must be Mina,” said the woman. “Can I come in?”


She was asking that just out of politeness. She opened the front door. Either she had a key or she just forced her way in. Mina didn’t answer, and her lack of objection was all the leave that woman needed to step in. She did so and curiously scanned the rendered decoration of the apartment.


“A bit too minimalist, don’t you think so?” she said, as she confidently strolled toward the helmet, putting it on. The Electrian vault dissolved, giving way to a gracious vast room surrounded by broad open windows that overlooked a beach at which waves of red water crashed under a light pink sky in which three suns shone. The seashore had a row of manors and mansions in a diverse set of either luxurious or bold and always grandiose architectural patterns, separated by rows of palm trees. The damp dusty-yet-not-dusty smell of the vault was gone, as a gentle breeze flowed from the windows, carrying a perfumed sultry air and gently blowing silky drapes that hanged from the ceiling. The vast windows were separated by narrow columns of salmon marble that were also predominant in the ceiling and ground, on which there were scattered velvety cushions and pillows.


“That’s better,” said the woman, as she graciously sat on one of the pillows. She eyed Mina for a moment, waiting for a question. The question never came as Mina remained tenaciously silent, but the woman decided to answer it anyway.


“My name is Amara Zamboni, and I am the director of operations of Zodiac Corp in the Aldebaran system,” she said and then paused for a moment, gauging Mina’s reaction.


“I work with your father. For legal reasons, I will need to record our conversation starting on this point.”


Amara pressed a small button on the lapel of her jacket, and then continued.


“Mina Alexopoulos, I’m officially reporting a landslide accident at shaft #345 of Aldebaran’s Mining Development Quadrant F. Zeus Alexopoulos was among the workers that were stricken by the debris.”


Mina didn’t know anyone named Zeus, until she remembered that this was Bull’s real name. Nobody called him that. Not even dad.


“Zagorac,” said Mina.


“I beg your pardon?”


“My name is Mina Zagorac.”


“Oh, I see. I chose to call you Alexopoulos because Zeus is your only surviving parent—”


“So he is not dead?” asked Mina.


Amara studied Mina for a moment.


“Would you like him to be dead?”


Mina pondered the question and Amara patiently waited for the answer.


“He gave up on us.”


“By us you mean… you and Mr. Aron Zagorac, I assume?”


Mina nodded.


“Would you like to...give up on him?”


“I have nowhere to go.”


“Would you like to be able to go anywhere? That can be arranged. Zodiac Corp would be happy to provide you with a compensation for your… loss. A stipend. At 11 years old, under both Terrian and Zodiacal law you can be emancipated under special circumstances. If you accept, I’d put you on the first transport out of here.”


“I have nowhere to go,” insisted Mina.


“You can go anywhere. Do you like that place you are seeing now? It’s a really nice city called New Taormina, in Lambda-Tauri 3, not far from here. The weather is always nice there.”


“I’d be alone,” said a pensive Mina.


“If that’s your choice, or you could meet people. There are lots of boys and girls that go to New Taormina for the red-water sailing scene. Do you like boys and girls?”


Mina tried to remember the boys and girls in her life. There were some at school, both in Celaeno 7 and Alcyone 9. But that was many years ago. She remembered either playing and fighting with boys and girls in the refugee camps in Taygeta 5, but they were always coming and going, she never developed a bond with any of them. And then there were their days in Electra 7. Mina had Michel, Auntie’s son, two years younger than her. He was a boy. He was always smiling in a silly way. And following her. And looking up at her. And yet, Michel never had said a single word during the years they spent together. Dad said that Michel stopped speaking after something bad happened to him. Lots of bad things happened to Mina before her dad died, but nothing compared to the ones after. She understood then why Michel would never speak. She would have done the same if she could afford to stay silent. When the debris was all over her body, weighing painfully on her bones, subsiding her muscles and sometimes ripping her skin while the dust filled her nostrils, she could barely speak. But she did. She actually yelled. And screaming saved her life. Mina screamed until someone answered. And after a few hours, she saw light, and a big hand jolting her up from her arm. She was surrounded by three soldiers. The one lifting her up by her arm bluntly asked, without waiting for her to cough out all the dust in her lungs:


“Any food or water down there?”


“My dad is there!”


The soldier slapped her.


“That’s not what I asked.”


“Auntie went out with Michel to find food.”


The soldier dropped her onto the pile of debris and followed to the ruins of another building with the other two.


“Wait, you can’t leave Dad here!” pleaded Mina. One of the soldiers –- not the one that lifted her from the debris –- turned around and looked at her. Mina was about to try to convince him to help her dig for her father, but then she recognized the look on his face. It was a quick, assessing stare, a double-take that took just a few seconds until he joined his colleagues in the other mound of debris. Dad had warned Mina that men who looked at her that way would try to hurt her and she should stay close to him when that happened. The girl the soldier extracted from the debris was too broken, damaged, dusty, raggedy, smelly for him to be interested.


She tried to lift the slabs of concrete under which her dad was for a few hours, but she knew that she was too weak. He was gone. She erred through the fuming ruins of New Marseille. After a few hours she spotted Auntie. Her long, black curly hair was now gray with all the dust in it. She, too, was wandering through the ruined city, her widened eyes apparently didn’t recognize Mina, reacting with confusion as she tried to hug her.


“Where’s Michel, Auntie?!”


“There’s no Michel,” she answered. “There is no one.”


“Auntie?”


The woman pushed Mina roughly, who fell on her backside, staring in confusion at her.


“I need to be alone, Mina. We need to be alone if you want to survive. Let’s be alone, apart, alive. Stay alone!”


Mina stood up and tried to hug her again, but this time the woman slapped her in the face.


“Stay away!”


“Auntie!”


“I’m not an aunt! I’m not a mother!”


“Aline!” appealed Mina, calling her by the name dad would refer to her.


“I’m not Aline! I’m… alone.”


And then the woman, who used to be Mina’s auntie, who was Michel’s mommy and wanted to be hers for a while, who at some point was named Aline, wandered away, all the while mumbling the same words to nowhere in particular.


“Alive. Apart. Alone. Alive. Apart Alone.”


A crying Mina hugged a disconcerted Amara as she muttered the same words Aline enounced:


“Alive. Apart. Alone.”


Amara urgently pushed Mina away. Just a little bit more strength and the push would be a shove.


“I need to show you something,” stated Amara, who produced a small holographic projector that soon displayed in the air a contract.


“Thirty thousand credits every year for the rest of your life plus a one way ticket on the next transport headed to Lambda-Tauri. All you have to do is to never see Zeus again. To accept, just touch the screen.”


Mina looked at the shining contract looming in front of her. She thought about dad. She thought about Auntie and Michel. And then she thought about Bull.


“Where’s Bull?”


“That’s how you call him?” asked an amused and mildy surprised Amara. “It’s appropriate.”


“Where is he?”


“You don’t need to worry about 'Bull.'”


“You said that there was an accident at the mine.”


“Just touch the contract and leave.”


“I want to see him.”


A familiar voice from the doorway caught their attention:


“What are you doing here?”


Bull was standing at the doorway.


“I don’t know,” answered Mina with sincerity while she lowered her head, without realizing the question wasn’t for her.


“Glad to see that you are feeling better already!” said Amara in an over-effusive tone as Bull frowned at the hologram of the contract.


“She’s off-limits, Amara.”


“I was working for that to be actually true,” answered the businesswoman.


Bull skimmed through the contract and his frown first shifted into concern, and then into a frown again. He squinted his angry eyes as he looked around until he focused on the food storage unit. He stomped toward it, opened its door and started shoving out its contents until he found something: a small black box.


“You were spying on us!” yelled Bull as Amara shrugged, cynically.


“Clause 183. If a Zodiac Corporation employee displays behaviors that may be the cause of any type of concern for his well-being, the Human Resources department is entitled to—”


Bull hurled the box against the wall, which crashed in small electronic fragments.


“Get out of my house,” grunted Bull to Amara, who noticed Mina raising her head, her eyes wet.


“You heard him, Mina. Get out of his house.”


Mina’s hand approached the contract, to Bull’s alarm.


“Don’t touch that,” he pleaded…


“It’s her choice and her legal prerogative by both Zodiacal and Terran Law.”


“Why are you doing this to me?” Bull asked.


“You are too much of a precious asset to be distracted by a brat,” answered Amara with a shrug. “You can’t blame me for taking care of our investment.”


Bull took a deep breath. Mina’s hand hovered over the contract’s hologram, but it was not moving. She was looking at him, and he soon understood why: Mina was listening. She was giving him his first, but also last and only chance to make his case.


“I love you, Mimi. But saying that is easy and you have no reason to believe me. I could keep you here, like the Zodiac Corporation is keeping me, by lying to you. Lying is easy, but it’s also wrong. I will tell you the truth, even if that truth takes you away from me for good.”


“Just for the record,” said Amara, while pointing at the recorder in her lapel, “I didn’t lie. That’d be illegal.”


Bull paused for a moment, as he needed time to deflect a provocation instead of allowing it to become anger. And then he continued:


“I wish I hadn’t left Celaeno 7 that day. My job in Aegean was supposed to last only five weeks. When that war set you, Aron and me apart, I did what I did best: I worked. I kept digging where Zodiac Corporation wanted me to dig, and whatever money I made I sent to Aron when banking was still a thing in the Pleiades. And then I hired detectives and smugglers. Most just ripped me off, some people out there have a flare for desperation.”


Bull looked pointedly at Amara for a moment, before he continued.


“You asked me earlier why I didn’t just buy a spaceship. I could only make so much by digging in the mines. That’s when Zodiac offered me a chance to make more. One day, Amara showed me a contract a little bit like the one that is there, next to you. You see, the problem with mines is that sometimes they crumble, and when that happens people die. And then Zodiac Corporation needs to compensate families for their loss. They decided to find some volunteers among the miners for an experiment to make us more resistant. The compensation was huge. I thought that it’d be enough money to get you and Aron out of the Pleiades. Even if it crippled or killed me, how could I say no to that? Saying things is easy… Saying yes was even easier.”

For a moment Bull’s eyes were lost, his gaze nowhere in particular. He wasn’t done, and Mina was interested. He could take a breath.


“There were eight other miners with me in that experiment. They injected us with something that made my muscles feel like fire and my bones feel like ice. It hurt like hell. We were eight miners. Then seven, then six, five, four, two… and finally only me. But that was the difference between them and me. They were alone with their greed. They were one. I… I was three. I was me, and Aron and you, Mimi. After a few months that ice-cold pain went away, and they started dumping heavy stuff on me. Enough weight to crush a man, but not me. It’d hurt every time, but not too much. They got what they wanted: a miner that could go to the most precarious shafts without fear. Stuff crumbled around me, but it never killed me. They would just fish me out of the rocks… and they paid me a lot.”


Bull chuckled darkly.


“But that was just when money wasn’t worth anything to me. When they started the total blockade in the Pleiades. Nobody entered, nobody left. The government decided to literally starve the factions to death since they couldn’t get them to stop fighting. I had all that money and no power. All the stones of Aegean couldn’t crush my body, but… I was the weakest man in the Taurus Quadrant... I had to make it stop hurting. I had… to give up on you and Aron. That was the most difficult decision of my life. I just made up my mind and told myself that you were dead. That’s how the government wanted that war to end anyway, with everybody in the Pleiades dead. And when the factions surrendered and the war ended, I sent over every detective I could hire. I told them that you were dead and I wanted to… bury you. I wanted them to find your bodies. They did. They found what was left of Aron. And they found what was… is you, Mimi.”


Bull gulped, his eyes wet and trailing away.


“I hope you don’t leave. I hope you give me a chance to love you again. I hope we can bury Aron together, like a family. That’s what I will do, with or without you. The hard thing to do is always the right one too. Do what you want.”


Bull turned his back to her. He’d crumble on the spot and never recover if he had to witness Mina touching that contract. He was privileged that Mina let him say what he had to say. He was eagerly looking forward to the bigger privilege of being her father again, even though now he realized that the person who walked out of that transport was almost entirely different from his Mimi. It didn't matter. She was still the baby that he and Aron had adopted. A baby that became a toddler. A toddler that became a little girl that he’d hug and tickle and pamper even when Aron would say that he spoiled her or shouldn’t cut her slack after she got that B-. Aron was the stickler. He had to be, as he was always around while Bull had to leave often and travel the Quadrant for weeks, sometimes months, to supplement their income.


“We gave up on you too,” said Mina, behind Bull’s back and to his surprise, as he expected that she would just fade away from his life in silence. He didn’t dare to move, but then he felt her hand, almost as small as it used to be, feeling his, tentatively, cautiously. “Remembering hurt too much.”


And then her little hand nested inside his big one. He wouldn’t let her go. Ever. He closed her hand inside his.


“Get the hell out of here,” he muttered, and this time Mina had no doubt to whom he was speaking. Amara disabled the contract’s hologram and swaggered to the door with what dignity she had left.


Bull turned his attention to Mina, who still had her hand encased in his.


“Can I give you a hug?”


Mina nodded, and Bull hugged her. She was no longer the stiff, small body that passively endured his embrace at the spaceport. She was now a daughter who loved her father. A daughter who felt empowered to speak out.


“Too hard.”


Bull immediately let her go with alarm.


“Don’t be mad at me, I’m just a clumsy big guy who breaks rocks for a living,” he said as an apology. Mina smiled. For the first time since he met her again. He couldn’t help but open a big smile too, which always looked goofy in his broad bearded face.


“Can we get out of here?”


Bull couldn’t prevent a chuckle.


“Do you even know what time it is now? It’s the middle of the night!”


“From here,” said Mina, by pointing out the illusion of New Taormina around them.


Now understanding what Mina meant, Bull grabbed the helmet and put it on his head.


“Where do you wanna go, Mimi?”


“Somewhere real.”


Bull smiled. He knew exactly what to do. The house in New Taormina that Amara rendered crumbled around them giving way to the white walls, except that this time one of them was being lowered, showing the city of New Knossos at night from a high standing point that would reach the dusty hills where the horizon would fade under a clear starry sky. A fresh, crisp breeze flooded the room. A real breeze, they were looking at a real window this time. Bull put a big arm over Mina’s shoulders and she leaned against the side of his body as their eyes turned to the same direction, locked in the night sky. Celaeno, Alcyone, Taygeta, Merope, Electra and the other Pleiades to which Mina has never been were in front of them, the brightest, biggest, closest stars. But then, a tenebrous tide slowly but inexorably swept all the stars from the skies, leaving nothing but sheer gloom. Mina jerked, uncomfortable with the sight of the dark canvass that the planet’s transit imposed before her eyes.


“You are in for a treat,” whispered Bull, as he rubbed her shoulder gently, calming her down. “Just wait.”


And Bull was right. The dark side of the planet was just a shady herald for what seemed, at first, to be only two small shiny dots in the horizon. As the dots ascended, they became narrow, parallel pillars of red light that, at first, seemed, straight, but soon started curving toward each other as they lengthened. And then the brilliant lines, converged, touching each other and becoming one: the complete bow of light of Aldebaran had risen from the horizon. It was a new day.







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