Helena found her brother in the dining hall, eating four days worth of rations like it was nothing. She approached and tossed something at him from across the table. "Next time you let someone take your clothes to be burned, make sure you've emptied the pockets," she advised.
Elias glanced up, saying nothing of Helena's return. "Thanks," he said simply, palming the communicator.
"Yeah," Helena shrugged. "I left your jacket tied to that motorbike of yours." Helena tapped her nails against the table. "So. Six missed calls?"
"Peeper," Elias accused, turning on his phone to confirm. Two from Hal, and four from Siggy. Elias groaned, banging his head against the long wooden table he sat at. The surrounding rooms had been joined, turning the area into a dining hall large enough to seat 400 people. "Siggy's probably bugging out," Elias lamented. "Hal's probably on the hunt."
"Hal?" Helena cocked her head to the side. "Siggy?"
Elias sat up and gestured at her. "Sit down, would you? Feels weird talking to you with you-hovering like that."
With a sour expression, she complied. "I do not hover," she muttered contemptuously.
"Newsflash: you totally do. I guess no one wanted to piss off the general by telling you."
"Yeah, that's what they call me. From that rust bucket out there, I gather you aren't called by such a name?" Helena taunted. "What is it you do?"
Elias took another bite of food. "You were always so competitive."
"I asked you for information!" she barked, banging on the table. She pushed her hair back when Elias reeled away. "Sorry, sorry. Didn't mean to grill you. I've just been doing this for a while. Or, it seems like a while." Her brow creased. "Sometimes I lose track of time so easily, I forget what day it is."
"Perhaps you'd like to see a doctor about that?"
"Perhaps you'd like to stop before you question my ability to lead any further?"
"Oh, watch out," Elias laughed, fake-cradling his hand. "You nearly cut off all my fingers with that sharp tongue of yours."
"That, I'm not apologizing for," Helena grinned. "Now. You first."
Elias put down his fork, losing his appetite. "Ah. Well. It was as easy as I thought to move into New City. I found a friend, lined up a place, got a job-everything." He took a pause that didn't quite fit with the tempo of his story. "Then the regime set up the Ban, and starting numbering the laws. I couldn't go back for you. Borderlanders without a pass can't enter New City. If I slipped out, it'd be for good."
Helena looked at him with wary eyes. "You were really going to come back for me."
"Yes! I wanted to get away from Dad, not you. Never you. You were everything to me."
"Then why not take me too? Why leave in the middle of the night, like a thief?"
"I had this silly dream," he said, half-dodging the question. "The big brother buying an apartment in the big, bad, city. Having money to spend on his little sister when she came through. Plenty for them to be happy." He paused. "All I needed to know was that you were safe. It didn't matter how much bad blood was between Dad and me. I knew he would always take care of you."
"Except he didn't," Helena said, taking Elias' fork and poking at his leftovers. "He might've blamed you for what happened to Mom. He might've denied you your Blessing. But he still needed you in his life. He died without you there."
"Shitty father for abandoning a daughter like you."
"Elias, he loved you!" Helena burst. "You were all he ever talked about. How happy he was to have a son. How much he wanted to see you."
"Clearly, he was dying of insanity!" Elias said. "He'd never say something like that."
"He wanted you to know so many things," Helena kept at it. "But New City is big. Even if I could've gone after you, there would've been little hope of finding you in time. The illness was quick. He never got to see you again." Helena raised her eyes. "Just like you wanted."
"Don't try to make me feel guilty," Elias said quietly. "I already have enough."
"Did you really have to go, though?" Helena asked. "Was him denying you the gift of flight that depressing; that infuriating; that you couldn't stay?"
Elias kept silent. He loved his sister dearly, but as a woman, she couldn't understand. Girls were not offered Blessings on their 15th birthday. They didn't live with the hope of tasting sky-of perhaps, in a moment of greatness, seeing wings fold out from their back. Only the sons were filled with that expectation: That promise of a birthright defined by their special, desert-born, bloodline.
When Elias' father had said he wouldn't give his only son his Blessing, it wasn't just disappointment. It was betrayal. A future being cut off; the rug pulled out from under his feet; a stab in the back. The final step in being disowned. Coupled with constantly being blamed for his mother's death, it was only a matter of time. Every hour Elias remained was suffocating. There was only one way to get air back into his lungs. He ran. Ran, because he'd never be able to fly.
And because of who Helena was-what she was-there wasn't any way to convey that pain. There weren't any parallels to go by. So, looking over her head, Elias nodded and simply replied: "Yes."
A couple hours later, while giving a tour of the Compound, a sudden thought made Helena stop in her tracks. "How are you getting back into the city."
"Hmm?" Elias stopped as well, jacket now tied around his waist.
Helena turned to him, looking almost panicked. "The Ban is in place," she said. "No one from the outside is allowed in without a citizen's pass. And you can only get a pass if you've been a registered occupant of New City for five years. But you've only been there for four." Her eyes were strangely concerned. "So how are you getting back in?"
He smiled, touched by his sister's worry. "Come on, Helena. I thought you were dead. How could I waste a single second thinking about anything but you?" Helena opened her mouth as Elias produced a plastic card attached to a black lanyard. "But cheer up-Siggy hacked into some government files and did me a favor. I was issued this two weeks ago. The entire time, I was gathering the confidence to see you." His smile became muted. "I guess I just needed a kickstarter."
"Jerk," Helena accused. She playfully pushed Elias away, secretly grateful to this mysterious Siggy. "...So the news hasn't spoken much of the Borderlands."
"It was the first report to ever reach my ears."
"Or else you would've come sooner."
Elias' eyebrows furrowed. For once, he saw the evidence of the burdens Helena now carried, rather than the product of them. She exhaled slowly. "Two years ago this all started. That's a lot of bodies. Your news is slow."
Elias returned the lanyard to his pocket awkwardly. "That's obvious, from what you've created. I mean, this place runs too well for these attacks to have just started today. Question is why New City Officials would like their citizens to believe otherwise."
"New City has been divided from the Borderlands for some time now. The Ban was just a formality. They were probably strong armed into broadcasting, since one of the rebels was in an accident the other day. All I know is that the leaders of your city certainly don't care about us," Helena hissed, giving the white wall in the distance a black glare. "If they could do it without raising an alarm, they'd sweep us under the rug. Get rid of us Desert Dwellers."
She paused, voice coming out soft. "Perhaps these creatures we're fighting belong to them. Maybe they've learned from the last attempt to wipe us out. Instead of being public, using fire and war, they're being more subtle. It would certainly be a neat way to go about it-creating monsters and releasing them at the farthest edges of the desert, picking us off on the way home."
Helena cocked her head to the side, mulling over the theory. Elias wanted to shake her and bring her back to her senses. Then cold realization spread over him: This is what his sister naturally did. This was her frequency. She was an honest-to-God general, considering every angle of war with chilly efficiency, to the point where her own death was a thing that could be logically explained. It almost made Elias cry.
She noticed his expression. "What is it?"
He shook his head. "Tell me more about what you do here."
She invited Elias to sit with her on a shaded bench. Elias ran his hands over the cool, concrete, alcove, fingers catching the etching he had made when he was nine.
"I started Compound A two years ago," Helena began. "I never set out for it to become such a big thing. There was a sickness spreading among the nomads. Nobody had the cash to pay for a visa and use New City's hospitals. So, I opened the house. I made a deal with a charity group in New City for medical supplies. I turned half the place into a sick bay, and the other half into boarding. I didn't even know what I was doing," she chuckled. "But I had to fill the place up with something.
"Then somehow, it got serious. I became a beacon. Just after everyone cleared out, I had people running in, screaming about attacks. They begged for shelter like I was a king. They drew pictures of monsters like I've never seen."
"Matilda mentioned that," Elias commented. "Strange creatures."
Helena nodded, mouth firm. "For the longest time, this place was nothing more than a hostel."
"So how does running a community turn into you becoming a general?" Elias wondered.
Helena let out a little hum as she thought back. "The people that usually came to my door were peaceful folk, who traded and made things. Then I got a group of refugees from a mining town. Strong men and women-the most survivors I'd seen. They found out I was leader and sat me down, wanting to know how I managed the place. I swear, I laughed at them. I wasn't managing-I was letting people run around a ghost town, and praying none of them burned it down.
"After hearing that, they helped me get my ship in order, so to speak." Helena paused to smile. "Lent likes to call me controlling. It's accurate. I started a census to keep track of all the incoming and outgoing. I assembled a working list of rules and curfews. I gave out actual job titles, instead of relying on the wayward volunteer. There was already a currency system in place; I just organized it a bit more neatly, taking out taxes from the trading and selling already going on. And boom-money to pay people with."
"Jeez," Elias laughed. "You're good at everything, aren't you?"
"I simply have an appreciation for order," Helena said. "After things settled in town, I had a small group go negotiate with rebel groups from New City regarding improved food and medical supplies. They aren't as charitable anymore, now that they know the miners came here loaded," she whispered conspiratorially.
"I keep hearing about these rebels." Elias said. "What's the deal with that?"
"Not everyone in New City hates desert people," Helena revealed. "Surely you've noticed? I live 10 miles away, and even I know that they demonstrate and try to pass legislation."
Elias' face colored. "I guess I keep my head kinda low. I mean, I knew that there were those kinds of people, but I never thought they were organized. That they were breaking Rules."
"Well," Helena went on, "to answer your question about becoming a general. I didn't pick it, but the name stuck. I learned to fight, to back up Dad's leadership training."
"Ah," Elias said, his distaste evident. "Love Dad's training."
Helena rolled her eyes goodnaturedly. "The guy who trained me now runs Compound B."
"Speaking of Compound B," Elias interrupted, "why are both those towns empty?"
Helena was silent for a moment. "I don't know," she finally said. "I went to check it out myself. All their stuff was broken; the place ransacked. Same for Compound C. They were both just...abandoned."
Elias nodded. "Well, then it only makes sense that you would use them."
"Yup," Helena sighed, stretching. "I've been directing new refugees there for about six months now. I check in on them every couple of weeks, but thanks to capable hands, things run as smoothly there as they do here. I really lucked out when it comes to people who don't want to start a mutiny."
Elias nodded again, surprised by all the questions he found himself coming up with. "I understand the need to assemble a team and pick leaders. But what's with the army at the gate?"
"It's for vagabonds," Helena answered, huffing. "Neighboring towns, jealous of the New City resources. Incoming refugees that want to take this place for their own territory." She caught Elias' look of alarm. "We haven't had that problem in a while," she assured him. "But it's still possible. I keep a squad of battle-ready soldiers in each Compound, and lately, they've been training extra hard," she ended, unable to sit any longer.
"Why's that?" Elias asked, standing with her.
"The monsters are catching up," Helena said. "That last batch of refugees came from 50 miles away. The cause of this problem moves relatively quickly. We're running out of space between them and us." Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not letting them see an inch of this place."
Elias pulled his sister into a hug and kissed the top of her head. She patted his back, just a touch awkward about the whole thing. "I wish you didn't have to do this," Elias whispered, voice as soft as feathers. "I'm so proud of what you've done, but at the same time..."
"I could've gone with them, you know," Helena replied. "Everyone else from the village? I could've followed them when Dad died. A smart, self-preserving, girl would've bolted at the first sign of a plague. But I stayed." She raised her head to look Elias in the eyes. "At first, it was nostalgia. Then, remaining became a habit. And then a duty. It isn't about you and me anymore."
"I know," Elias answered, letting her go. "You know, you've become really amazing. I hope you know that. Certainly a lot better than your scruffy big bro, whose sole career is making deliveries."
Helena wrinkled her nose. "Sounds great."
"Oh, it's awesome," Elias scoffed.
"Is Siggy a delivery boy too?" Helena asked.
"Nah. He's a techie for a hotshot company; a few years older than me. He looks out for me." Something crossed Elias' features and he whipped out his phone. "Shit. Last he heard, I was dragging myself away from the scene of an accident and driving headlong into the desert," Elias muttered as the phone rang. "Probably thinks I got eaten by a mutant sandworm. Growing up north of New City makes him that pathetic, scared-of-things-that-don't-really-exist tourist."
"But we do have sandworms," Helena pointed out.
"And we are not going to tell him that. Oh, he's picking up."
Siggy's voice was so loud that Helena heard every word he blasted into Elias' ear. "NICE OF YOU TO FINALLY CALL, ASSHOLE."
Elias grinned, happy at the sound of a familiar voice. "Oh hush," he borrowed Matilda's phrase. "I told you I was fine."
"No, you didn't tell me that you were fine. You told me-sounding drunk off your ass (but I guess being hit at 30 mph by a 2000 pound object will produce a similar effect)-that you were going to see your sister. One whom, upon all previous occasions, you have not expressed a modicum of interest in visiting!"
Elias flicked his gaze to Helena, but she was staring toward the Compound.
"Where are you, damn it?" Elias came back to Siggy asking. "Why'd you bail?"
"Things are a bit more complicated than they were this morning."
"And is that because of the concussion?"
"Wore a helmet!"
"Well then what the fuck is going on?"
"You know, your mouth gets fouler as you get angrier."
"What a clever deduction," Helena interrupted softly. "It must be a rare person who swears when they're pissed off to high hell."
Elias held up his hand to silence her. "Anyway, I'm ten miles into the Borderlands."
"Okay," Siggy drew out his answer. "And what made you decide to take a detour there?"
"The scenery is nice this time of year. And monsters are attacking. Thought I'd check it out myself." Something crashed in the background. It sounded like a glass cup being thrown at the wall. Helena grabbed the phone and took over.
"My name is Helena Valcor," she said crisply. "I run Compound A of the Borderlands, as well as Compounds B and C. They're refugee camps, since New City wants nothing to do with its desert people, who are (as Elias said) currently under attack. Do you follow me so far?"
"Well enough," Siggy said, somewhat calmed by the steady stream of coherent information.
"Those attacks started quite some time ago, resulting in innumerable casualties. They've been getting closer. Elias informed me that New City has only just revealed the trouble on their border. Other than that, we've been catching up. He'll be home soon. That's all."
She tossed the phone back at her brother and walked toward the house. She stopped to talk to a group of kids playing around the statue of an angel. Elias put the phone back to his ear.
"So. Monsters in the desert."
"Your sister sounds quite serious."
"She's definitely something," Elias admitted. "She punched me in the face when she realized who I was."
"She was probably pissed about you leaving for so long," Siggy hit the nail on the head. "You never told me why you left in the first place. I hear about desert life and those things called 'Blessings', and-of course-hours upon hours about your sister." Elias blushed, grateful that Helena was out of hearing range. "But your best friend, and I get nothing about your mysterious, dark, past?" Siggy teased.
The blush vanished, and Elias' voice became a chilly sort of neutral. "Later."
Siggy's tone indicated no offense. "Okay. You said you'd be back by tonight?"
"Helena did, and I'll certainly try," Elias replied, following as Helena started off again.
"Come over to my house," Siggy said. "I got Hal off your back, but I thought he might go to your place in a rage. A man both tiny and dangerous. I had to tell him you took the company vehicle, pretending to go about your deliveries, and skipped work."
Elias groaned. "You made me sound like a criminal."
"It's better than the alternative," Siggy said.
"Thanks," Elias exhaled. "I guess I owe you, buddy."
"We can discuss my terms later. And you're alright? You don't sound dead."
"Me?" Elias laughed. "I'm tough as anything. You know that. This is nothing."
"I'm holding you to that answer. Enjoy your reunion, then be sure to see me."
Elias disconnected the call and watched his sister's powerful stride. Her eyes were fierce as she looked back to confirm he was keeping up. He offered a weak smile, still having a hard time matching up this Helena with the one from his memories. Despite Siggy's words, this reunion was more like a first meeting.