Haloed Bane

Baton Rouge, Gotes'hor


NOTE: The events depicted here occur in between ch. 34 and 35 of Sinduin Saga (c. Saturday October 29th, 2011 on Earth). When in the first panel of SS 35 the Zeburaja says “Good morning,” it should be understood that it is the second morning after the events of the prior strip, not the very next morning.

Maddie's Home

The two-storey house was the only visible structure in the thick blue haze. She was surprised -and somewhat annoyed- to find that the door was locked. She noticed an old-style knocker, a brass dragon's head biting down on the ring. It didn't look very inviting, but she was about to put her hand in the beast's maw when she heard Maddie coming.

They hugged as two sisters who hadn’t seen each other in a long time would. Maddie followed it up with kisses on both cheeks.

“What you say, Big Sis!”

“Hugs are OK, but all this kissing is not very American.”

“May, Ah’m French-American, sha. Come see now.” Maddie stuck her tongue out, then laughed.

Big Sis gave her a stern look. Maddie sighed theatrically and gestured to the living room: “Welcome.” As she walked inside, Big Sis thought she heard her mutter “Maghty prude for a Swede” in complaint.

The TV screen showed a bloodied man, frozen in the middle of a serious beating.

“Sit. Did you ever watch it?”

“I think I missed it.”

“Da Passion, 2004. Ultimate underdog story. Ice cream?”

“Sure, thanks.”

Maddie went into the kitchen and Big Sis surveyed the room. A bundle of clothes on the dark brown corduroy sofa, more than a few magazines and/or textbooks and/or possibly yogurt cups on the floor. Messy child. A bottle of pills on the coffee table, although the likelihood of her being sick was practically nil here. Aside from the blue light seeping through the windows, it did look like a middle-class home somewhere in America.

She came back with two ice cream bowls -one red, one purple- and a bottle of Dr. Pepper.

“Thanks. What’s this mess then?”

“If you manage to get under all da caramel you’ll fahnd Girl Scout cookies all crushed in with vanilla and chocolate and such. Beat up two of dem to git it.”

“What?!”

“Ah’m jokin’, Sis," she said, even as she mimicked grabbing someone by their pigtails and slapping them. "Ah got it from da store. You don’t have to go around beating people to git what you need anymore. Pax Americana, Age of Aquarius...” Maddie picked up the bowl again and began battering through the caramel syrup.

“I see.” Big Sis was peeved. Was she accusing her of being some type of mobster? She never beat up people unless there was a really good reason for it.

“You fixin’ to drink dat?”

“No! I don't even know why you brought it. Who drinks soda with their ice cream?!”

“Alright, fancy mouth. Catch me dat den.”

Maddie took the can and unpaused the movie. Very teenage-like of her to go back to watching it during a family reunion.

"How have you been?"

Maddie smiled but did not turn her head from the TV screen. She seemed quite engrossed.

“So,” she said, hoping to get more out of her, “Is this more research for your theory?”

Maddie put down the can and turned the volume down, then frowned at Big Sis. After a second or two, she picked up her bowl again, grinned and asked:

“You reckon he walked on water? Like, really?" She waved her spoon around. "Frankly, it's hard to believe.”

“Yeah, it is. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible. Spiders can do it, but that’s about it I think.”

“Gawd, you’d know, wouldn’t you. Especially you.”

“Why would I, Madison?”

“Because you like to test the waters.”

Big Sis laughed. “I do?”

“May, if. Sis, if it were possible for someone to walk on water, you’d had bin doin’ it all dis time by now!”

Maddie started on one of the scoops, and Big Sis felt a twinge of frustration. She knew that Maddie hated it when anyone made reference to what she, when absolutely compelled to discuss it, called “the other place.” Her work ethic was commendable, but how were they supposed to talk shop if she wouldn’t break out of character? Written reports were not enough in her opinion. But you couldn’t just broach the subject with her. Bleh. Maybe she should let things be and just enjoy the ice cream.

“Mm, coconut. Tasty.”

“May, if. I take it you’re not into da movie boocoo?”

“It’s a bit too bloody for me," she said, then added with sarcasm, "shocking as that may sound to you coming from a monster.”

Maddie’s face lit up: “I have Independence Day. Classic, 1996.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I saw that. Fresh Prince is in it, right?”

“Will Smith, Sis. Will Smith used to be Fresh Prince, but he mostly goes by his actual name now.”

True. Once you're famous enough, people recognize you by your own name and not one of your characters'.

“Alien invasion something or other.”

“Yes! Anoder underdog story, see? Dey’re da best ones.”

“They’re stupid. I mean, the only way the underdog ever wins is by cheating. Give me a break. A species that ranks zero point three on the Kardashev scale concocts a virus that can disarm a full-on transsystemic attack? Yeah, right.” She pointed at the TV, and added: “And him? If you can resurrect yourself, then you’re not an underdog, are you. You’re just pretending. Like going to all the trouble of seeking enlightenment and then turning around and confessing to your followers that you'd been enlightened for forever and a day and had just been acting out a little scene for their benefit. Merciful maybe, but not heroic.”

Whether it was because her own area of specialization lay firmly in the West or whether she was simply sticking to what Madison J. Loisel, the college sophomore, would be comfortable with, Maddie ignored that last part altogether, saying: “He was resurrected by dat higher power he believed in, Sis, not of his own power. Dough I do reckon da whole trinity ting muddies tings up a bit. Anyways, da point is dat da higher power’s got yer back when you’re an underdog.”

“But it’s not true, Maddie. You're old enough to know that.”

“May dat’s not da point, don’t you get it, sha?! Da point is people believe in it, done believed in it and forever will believe in it. Da point is dat people believe every dog will have its day and as long as dey have dat belief dey will do anytin’. Heck, dey even work for der oppressors happily too if dey tought one day dey will get back at dem. Best served cold and all.”

“Aha," replied Big Sis.

"Like ice cream!" Maddie jumped up and trotted into the kitchen.

Maddie had been suggesting plans along these very lines for a while now. She was a tenacious tropehound, and on the basis of her vast knowledge of trivial terrestrial matters she had come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with the Earthlings was to preëmpt a genuine resistance by engineering one themselves. Such a “movement,” covertly controlled by Incudea, would not only suck the air out of other, hapless but hopeful indigenous rebellions, but would also allow the conquerors to pinpoint troublemakers as needed. Not to mention it would be a great safety valve, and if managed properly would make most humans cooperate that much better with their new overladies. The only dangerous human, she argued, was the truly hopeless human. And he's very unproductive to boot. Why not give him a modicum of hope then? Good ol' Maddie was gracious enough to volunteer herself to lead the resistance, so that if the Santa Calafia Plan was selected and implemented, it would set up two alien sisters on opposite sides of the fight for Earth. Matsumoto had done that before on Queen Millennia, did Maddie know? Big Sis thought better of asking her. She didn’t like the notion of this girl knowing so much more about things than she did, who was the one actually living there. And anyway, the trope didn't work because they weren't real sisters to begin with. Plus Millennia and Selene were not really on opposite sides, either.

Maddie returned with two new scoops. She hadn't drowned them in caramel this time. Instead, she brought with her a jar of maraschino cherries and showed it to Big Sis. When the latter refused the invitation, she placed three of the cherries on her bowl, then poured a good amount of the red water in for good measure. "Ah'm just hittin' mah strahd," she explained unapologetically.

"I can see that."

Maddie stopped eating to comment on the Via Crucis. “How many tahms he falls is fixed, you know. In tradition. Der he goes again, watch!”

And indeed he fell. It was impossible to tell whether she had seen the movie that many times, or whether she was somehow so attuned to cinematic directing conventions that she could predict when each dramatic moment had to come. Either way, she was consuming far too much media, though Big Sis was guilty of the same crime. That was not the only troublesome thing about this agent. For many reasons, the thought of Maddie Loisel leading a rebellion in the North American continent scared Big Sis. What if she decided to rebel in reality? Would she be able to tell the difference? She had curled up inside simcens for so long.

Maddie frowned at Big Sis, not trusting her when so quiet, and the latter felt forced to break the silence.

“Underdogs, huh.”

“Dee American dream and all dat jazz, Sis. Which remind me, awr you a Mahls Davis fan?”

“I can’t say that I am. Are you?”

“May, talk about.”

“Huh?”

“Course..Ah..am.”

“Well, I always took you for more of a Jefferson Davis fan, no offense.”

"Da county? Port Artur is nice.”

A thud and a rattle.

Big Sis and Maddie

“What was that?”

“Notin’,” answered Maddie as she bent down in a hurry and kicked something under the sofa.

Big Sis looked at the coffee table and saw that the pills were no longer there.

“Maddie, I saw the bottle earlier.”

“Ugh, you got me. Yeah, Ah’m takin’ some pills. No big deal.”

“No big deal? Then why did you hide them under the furniture? Are you sick?" Big Sis put the bowl down and looked straight at her. "Have you told?"

Maddie grabbed Big Sis’ hands and said “Ah just figured one day, since all da little stuff Ah lose ends up under da sofa anyways, I might as well put it der. Dat way next tahm Ah can’t fahnd sometin’, Ah’ll know right where it is. Awr you really concerned for me dough?”

She was deflecting, Big Sis thought, but she was probably moved too. It wasn't that hard to touch someone that was used to living among phantasms incapable of actual physical contact.

“Of course, you’re my little sister. My little parasite.”

“Ah love you, Big Sis. Sinful and divahn. Juliette and-”

“Save it, Romeo. The pills.”

Maddie sighed and muttered, "Justine, dummy." Then she shrugged and explained, all the while making no movement to retrieve the bottle. “Mama gave dem to me, so der's notin' to tell, see?"

“Mama?" This was a shock. “What for?"

“You know our mama is like dat pelican. If der was no food she’d wound herself for us. Feed us her blood." She pointed to the screen. "Just like him, dough he included his body into da bargain, so he's ahead a bit. I mean, look at him."

"What does that have to do with the pills, Maddie?"

"Notin’. Just sayin’ I trust her, dat’s all. Dem pills? Growth retardants." She pronounced the word "growth" deliberately, as if relishing it.

"Why on Earth would you need that?!"

Maddie slapped her knee and barely suppressed a guffaw. Noticing that Big Sis hadn't intended any kind of joke, Maddie went on: "Mama, she’s afraid of mah growth spurts."

Big Sis was confused. "There’s no way you’ll be stuck here long enough to make a difference. And if you look older, you’ll act older. Doing this doesn’t make sense."

"Not exactly sure what you're goin' on about but you've got it all wrong. It’s not physical growth we’re discussin’."

"Then what?"

Maddie tapped her right temple. "Up here."

Ah. Big Sis understood now, and the realization made her ill. Maddie had come to everyone's attention by leaping through the two lowest trinities in under fifteen years. At that rate, she'd be out of their sights before long, and so the SubDiv had found a way to prevent that and protect their investment. But there were probably side effects. With something like that, there had to be.

"A penny for your toughts," Maddie said, and a penny materialized in her palm. Whether it was sorcery, the simcen, or a good parlor trick was not something Big Sis judged worth pondering at the moment.

"My thoughts are much pricier than that."

"Are you wondering if dey’ve done it to you too? ‘Cause, you know, dey haven’t."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Just ‘cause."

Maddie went back to watching the movie, and it seemed to Big Sis that the smile on her face now was fake. She couldn’t help feeling that she had won a small victory there, though she was ashamed to feel so. Maybe she could get her out of character for once and have a straight conversation. Her aim wasn't to depress the poor kid, but it was ultimately for the good of both of them. Not knowing how to begin, she stood up and started going through the clothes on the sofa. It'd be easier with a little distance. "Maddie. We need to- Huh, what’s this?"

"Mah Halloween costume. Least it was until yesterday, when it was decided Ah wouldn't git to wear it."

"This?" Big Sis pulled it out I thought you had picked up a new hobby, trapping fish or squirrels or something."

"It’s a spahderweb costume, Sis. Proper for da season."

Big Sis brought the net to her face and said: "Word of advice: if I can have a conversation with you through your outfit, it isn’t proper, I don’t care what the occasion."

"Prude," Maddie declared. "Anyways, I don’t git to go to da school party, so you can go fish with it if you like."

Big Sis fiddled with the costume and realized quickly there was no way she could fit in it. Even Maddie would have a tough time not snapping it. Then again, with Halloween these days, not fitting was probably the point.

"Still getting in trouble in school?"

"Yep."

"Let’s see. I remember hearing once that you kissed the principal…in front of everyone…in an auditorium?"

"Yup, back in hagh school." Maddie clapped her hands. "It was Good Frahday, but we were in school! What kahnd of heathenistic school forces kids to attend on Good Frahday? Ah had to make a statement."

"It doesn't excuse your behavior," replied Big Sis with a smile. "It doesn't really explain it either, truth be told."

"May, Ah’m willing to bet you it was a good frahday for da principal! Not dat she would ever admit it."

"Didn’t they have to put the school on lockdown because of you one time?"

"Oh, yeah. Senior year, on da last day of some deadline or sometin'. Da counselor comes in just as Ah’m fixin’ to go home for da weekend – long weekend, as I recall – and asks me: 'Have you decided what you’re going to do, young miss? You won’t be a high school senior forever, you know?'"

Maddie slapped her knee again. Big Sis, who had been sitting on the sofa, came and sat down next to her.

"What does he know, right? So Ah said to him: 'Annihilate humanity. How’s dat for a career choice?'"

"Hmm. Memorable. And...you said you were banned from the party yesterday, right?"

"Yep."

"Then that makes three Fridays already. Why do you always raise hell on Fridays?"

"Because! I git two full days to fix tings up, duh."

"So what, they caught wind of your costume – no pun intended…"

"I don’t see a pun anywhere, sha, but no. The costume was a surprise, would have bin one." Maddie looked down at the floor, as if she was genuinely ashamed, or maybe plain scared of Big Sis' reaction. She did a rapid-fire confession:

"Ah was sittin’ in da cafeteria with mah friends and Ah tought of a really funny joke Ah won’t tell it you had to be der kahnd of ting and so dat couyon Danny was drinkin’ dis 2-liter Mountain Dew he had smuggled in and Ah waited until he took a big swig and Ah done gave dem all da punchline so he splashed da whole ting on mah face end of story."

"You timed it!"

"Yep."

"And you actually got wet?"

"Bubbly stuff dripped from mah alabaster brow all da way down to mah brand-name consons."

"I bet you looked lovely," Big Sis deadpanned.

"As lovely as a baby seal, only wetter. May," she added, raising her index fingers, "more like a wet rabbit."

"I can imagine the pandemonium."

"For sure. But with Halloween on da way, Ah managed to convince dem it was a practical joke."

All in the name of research. Big Sis had been on Earth a decade and she could see how all this data could be useful in the years (months…days?) to come. Reactions, methods of coping, crisis management. Maddie was doing critical work, provided that the intel Big Sis sent periodically was being datafied into the sims correctly by "Marge", as Maddie called the Gorgon in charge of the task.

"I’ll be looking forward to reading about it."

Silence from Maddie.

"Funny of you to say I’m the one that likes testing the waters."

USA 2025

One possible future for America were Maddie's plan to be accepted. The toughest battles between the collaborationist UPSA and the rebels would take place around the city of Houston. Presumably Sinduin's ESC would stay put and let the UPSA handle things.

Maddie smiled, and Big Sis went on: "Keep eating that ice cream, though, and you’ll be as lovely as a manatee, only fatter."

Madie put a hand on Big Sis’ shoulder, and looked her straight in the eye, saying "Blood is ticker dan water. Space needs stars to shahn, may da stars need dat space too, obviously." She looked at the ceiling, then at all four walls, and went on: "You’re mah star."

"I’m your star," is all Big Sis could think to say.

"Pole -no!- Dutch, Swedish, star. Awful hard to keep track."

This reference to fictive identities that were truer than the air they currently breathed (after all, Big Sis' Dutch papers might be a bit fake but her Swedish passport was 100% real and gave her access to all of Earth, whereas the humidity here did not extend beyond the confines of the house; the simulation centroid was drier than a desert, per regulations, and outside of this spacious all-American home, Mount Gotes’hor filled up with snow) seemed like another opening, but something in Big Sis’ eyes must have betrayed her thoughts as Maddie immediately pulled back into full Madison J. Loysel mode.

"Will you be seein’ mama?"

Even though she didn't think it was fair for Maddie to break her own rules only to complain or shut down if you followed suit, Big Sis yielded and simply said: "No." She thought some more and added, "I didn’t get to see her at all this time around, but she came to me…last night."

"Mama kahnd of ting. Mistress dogcatcher."

"Well, Maddie. I’m sure by now you’ve noticed the tendency for these underdog types the masses like to rally around to, you know, die, right?"

"For sure. You can only look up to a failed hero for so long. After dat you need her to be martyred or fucked up somehow so you can go on respecting her. Death bah fahr, death bah arrows, bah dis," she said, holding her garish rose quartz crucifix. "Pass dee eternal baton to da next hero, which notion sounds noble and fancy until you realize it essentially involves taking dat exact same baton in dee ass eternally. Or bein’ condemned to watch oders take it."

Failed conquerors are lifted up in just the same way, Maddie. Just look at Artayctes. We're all rats, not dogs and dogcatchers. Let's try to stay ahead in the race, for what it's worth.

"If you're right, then it's a very sad situation."

"Tray Sade, exactly!"

Big Sis was about to complain about the cussing -codes of etiquette being the same in all universes, even made-up ones- when Maddie tugged at her arm and said:

"How’s about we wash down dee ice cream with mah world famous meat pah?"

"I’d call that ‘The sentence that should not be,’ Maddie."

"May, I’ve got clam if you prefer dat."

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