Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Aja said, though her eyes avoided her sister’s face. Saj noticed the hesitation, noticed the way Aja’s bangs (gray and black, like soot-streaks on the walls of a bombed-out Akari factory) hung thin, revealing a forehead creased only with the lines of age. Saj’s hair was short and black, the standard military cut, and the slashed-circle brand of the soldier caste was glossy and pink above her eyebrow.

“How would you know?”

“You still look like you’re sixteen.”

“I’m nineteen. And I’ve changed a hell of a lot.”

Saj’s voice was tight, somewhere between the tone of a defensive child and a fierce adult, but there was no conflict in the duality. Saj kept her head high, her expression arrogant and indifferent to the curious stares of the few other teenagers in the café. None of them were branded. The caste system had been eliminated twenty years ago, when Saj was seventeen and light years away in the dying months of the war.

“You’re a doctor now,” Saj’s eyes remained hard on Aja’s face. “A plastic surgeon. Is that what happened to your mark?”

“Don’t do this, Saj.” When she frowned, her face looked like the wrinkled crust of the ice moon of Omnaki. Aja would never see that moon. No Salal would ever see it again. “The war is over, now.”

“Your war.”

“Our war.”

“The only people who shared that war with me died in the massacre on Soulon 5.” Saj’s expression was stony, and her dark eyes had narrowed into slits. “This isn’t my home. This is some world that you made, you and the rest of them, after I went away.”

Saj stared at her sister’s hands, which seemed even more alien than the leathery flesh of the Akari. Liver spots, wrinkled skin, fingernails painted mauve. It was hard to believe that they’d shared a womb, nineteen or sixty years ago.

“There’s a place for you here,” Aja whispered. “I’ve been saving. You can live with James and I, and go to University. We can get rid of your brand.”

“This isn’t my world,” Saj repeated. “And no one’s touching my brand.”

A cold silence fell over the café, and Saj realized she’d spoken too loudly for the enclosed space. She pushed herself up from the table and it creaked at the force of her muscular arms.

“Remember the river, out behind the house?” Aja said. “Where we used to swim in the summer?”

“You’re older than Grandma was.”

“We built a raft once, to see if we could float away from the colony.”

“If I’d drowned, you would have been firstborn,” Saj snapped.

“And I would have gone instead of you.”

Aja’s voice was calm, but Saj pushed away from the table and whirled, her boots squeaking against the floor as she stormed towards the glass door.

“I’ll wait for you.”

“You’ll be waiting for a damn long time.”

“I’ve been waiting for sixty years.”

This time, Saj hesitated, her hand on the doorknob. She stared back at her sister, something indefinable flickering behind her dark eyes.

“Come home,” Aja said.

Saj gritted her teeth and turned away. “I don’t have a home.”

She slammed the door before shoving her hands into the pockets of her jacket and tightening her fingers around her cellphone. Its directory was empty, aside from Aja’s number and the Social Service Center. She wanted to break it, to watch it explode like a photon grenade, but she didn’t move. Saj was cold and tired, and she didn’t know what to do next.

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