Spinning fan blades, through a grating directly over her bed in the dim metal room. There were four clusters of LED lights in the room, one set in each corner, and the placement of the ceiling fan blocked one of the clusters. Selene Anahid liked to turn off every cluster except the one which was blocked, just over her head. It glowed partially into the fan box and had a curious effect, as she laid down in her bed. It was as if the light was spinning inside the box. Her lips formed a little grin.
Selene lifted her hand as if reaching for the fan blade. She closed her fingers.
Pretending as if she was grabbing the center of the blades and forcing it to stop.
And the blades did stop, almost effortlessly.
On her wall, a terminal window opened which blared an alert about room airflow.
Selene released her fingers and the blade resumed spinning.
She looked at her hands.
Furious red and sickly green trailed off of her hand.
Similar colors dissipated from around the fan box and drifted back towards her.
“Push, pull, twist, spread, turn,”
Euphrates had taught her that it was easiest to think of psychokinetic abilities in terms of familiar mechanical movements. Most people who learned about psychokinesis thought of it in terms of pushing an object, like bending a spoon by smashing the top back over the handle. When she was first learning, Selene found the visualizations helpful. Now, however, she was powerful. She could exert exactly the force that she wanted on any object. She needed only to command the object and it would obey.
The same as Norn could seemingly do to people’s entire minds.
She was powerful. Or, well– she should have been powerful.
Out here in the world, outside the Sunlight Foundation’s secret installations, she had begun to feel limited.
It reminded her of when she was younger. Never learning fast enough, never succeeding with ease.
Hungry to become something but unskilled at surmounting obstacles.
“Psionic power is perhaps linked to the human will to control our environment.”
Euphrates had said this once as if to guide her.
“Then how do I become stronger?”
Euphrates did not have the answer to that. In fact, she resisted the nature of the question.
“Do you aspire to do something that is truly beyond your current capabilities?”
“I don’t know. I mean– doesn’t everyone want to be better at shit? It’s not philosophical.”
“Perhaps you are already skilled enough for everything you wish to do. Think about a concrete goal you want to accomplish and then think about what you need to accomplish it. Strength means nothing in the abstract.”
Idiot! What goal does a lab rat like me possibly have?
Euphrates always philosophized to her in that way. But what did Euphrates know? She had practically no limit to what her powers could do. Meanwhile Selene kept finding herself limited. She sought to lift the next highest kilogram count, the next farthest meter throw, to crush the next hardest object, to read guarded thoughts and overcome powerful wills. She did not have goals, she was not born into goals or given goals. All she had was a role and an understanding of where she was limited.
Every time she crossed one threshold she found another closed door.
When she was in the Jagdkaiser, she could feel her power expanding to the point she felt she could see the future. When she took the drug, psynadium, she felt the same. Her consciousness expanded, her body felt like it could do anything. She felt so assured, like nothing could stop her. And yet, both psynadium and the Jagdkaiser caused her to run against her limits and break. She had visions sometimes, delusions; she would freak out, end up comatose. It made her feel weak.
She had been recently released from the infirmary. And now she was just sitting around.
Psionics was like a muscle. You could stretch it to the breaking point so it would grow tighter and tougher.
But what if you couldn’t surmount the breaking point? What if you could not push it further?
Selene grit her teeth.
She had to be stronger. She had to be strongest. Because she had nothing else in life.
No family, no heritage, no destiny. Made for nothing, born from nothing.
Euphrates was not here now. She couldn’t field any of her endless questions.
She wouldn’t understand. Norn was born with immense power. Norn had no limitations. Her massive power was the only reason she was not piloting the Jagdkaiser. Yangtze must have feared Norn having access to that machine. So Selene was the test pilot instead. Not that Norn even cared about that. Any machine in her hands was like the Jagdkaiser, invincible and almighty.
Selene pictured that if she asked Norn a banal question like ‘how do I become stronger?’ it would be impossible for her to even comprehend the request. Or worse, she might tell Selene the one thing it would mortify her to ever hear– that it was just not possible for her to ever achieve Norn’s level of power. Selene was simply not born special like her and would never be special.
But Norn was born from a machine, just like her. So what was it that separated them?
“How am I different from Norn?”
There was one way she was different. And it was in her own favor.
Thinking idly about this and wanting to do something other than sulk about her current situation, she reached her hand down off her bunk, pulling open a drawer. Inside there was a cylinder filled with a viscous red material.
Like sickly red egg yolks suspended in seawater.
Selene mindlessly uncapped the cylinder and flicked her fingers toward the material inside.
At her command, the fluid rose out of the cylinder.
Spinning in on itself around her hand until it kneaded itself in a spherical “dough.”
When she focused on moving it, the material spread, and then coalesced, amorphous in shape and radiating a certain warmth in its mechanical action. Selene watched it without expression, and at her behest, the ameboid matter started to take on a shape. Within moments, a red butterfly took off flying from her hand, as if by its own accord. In reality, it was hardly alive.
Proteins, lipids, water and iron, hydrocarbons, folded in just the right way to appear alive.
Moving at her command with no will of its own.
Was this so fearful a thing?
Selene had been born and spent much of her life in an SF station hidden in the Abyss of Frederich, a cavernous gorge like the one they were approaching, Goryk’s Abyss. Euphrates told her she was under the care the Sunlight Foundation. As she grew older, Euphrates encouraged her to learn various skills. Selene fashioned herself as a soldier, but Euphrates always resisted her becoming anything– she just encouraged her to learn for no reason. As she watched the butterfly traverse the room, she thought of Euphrates, the master of Frederich’s Abyss, and the one who had taught her so much, but also, kept so many details from her.
Questions Norn promised to answer, Euphrates always kept hidden.
Direction that Selene craved, Euphrates always refused to provide.
And one fateful day when she showed Euphrates her power over red mass–
Her breath caught in her throat, and she had nothing to say, except–
“Merrimack, promise me you will not do this again. Do not show this to anyone.”
Would Norn react the same way if Selene showed her this ability?
“Euphrates was always getting on my case about everything. She was so self-righteous, she never understood anything I wanted– I bet Norn would understand.” She smiled. “I bet Norn would think it’s a unique and amazing power. Maybe a sign of my potential, something I could master that would help me surpass even the Immortals. Something that I could cultivate to surpass all of my limitations. I should show it to Norn– when I can make something scarier than a butterfly anyway.”
Selene pinched her antennae in frustration, shooting a tiny knot of pain into her head.
Her butterfly was pretty deficient. All it could do was fly and look pretty.
She couldn’t even see through it, for example, because it had no eyes.
Selene could feel what the butterfly felt, to some extent, but that was useless.
Once she thought of a military purpose for it, she would demonstrate it to Norn.
“Euphrates thinks we should keep all of this stuff bottled up for ourselves. She’s always bitching about not interfering with the world. But Norn would use it. She would change the whole world with it, just like she wants to change the world with her own powers and her own soldiers. With Norn, I’ll definitely be someone with power and prestige.”
She stuck out her tongue in defiance of the Euphrates in her mind.
“Take that, Euphrates, you liar.”
Selene guided the butterfly into the cylinder, whereupon it separated into fluid once again.
She capped the cylinder and returned it to the drawer in her bunk.
“Maybe Norn would finally tell me about my fucking parents too if I showed her this.”
Selene hardly remembered her childhood, a stultifying series of lessons and tests.
In her early teens, however, she had begun to truly consider her origins.
Even a child born artificially needed genetic material from live human beings.
But Euphrates refused the question; and Norn held back the answer as a carrot.
Her parents must have been either heroes or heretics of the Sunlight Foundation.
No one dared invoke their names it seemed, whether in reverence or disgust she did not know.
For Selene, it wasn’t even about the knowing itself. She knew she was born in a vat; she was aware that “third party” genetic material was not used in her creation in the same way Katarrans used, rather she was an ordinary human child born in an unorthodox fashion. None of that truly bothered her. Rather, knowing her parentage was a way to move forward with certainty. There was a hole in her knowledge of herself, and it was holding her back. She wanted to be able to dismiss it.
It was a limitation. It hid in the corners of her mind, gnawing at her little by little.
To make the butterfly out of red matter she had to understand the idea of a butterfly. The action of the wings, the composition and body plan of a lepidopteran, the relative weight, the many compounds that made up carbon-based life. Everything she knew helped her create the end product. As she learned more and more, the butterfly she made became more and more realistic.
Her understanding of a butterfly had become, perhaps, more complete even than her understanding of herself.
Could she perhaps become stronger if the understood, fully, the origin of “Merrimack”?
After all, Euphrates had said psionics was the power of the mind and will.
Norn knew what she was, who she was; Euphrates never had any doubt of herself.
Maybe that gnawing doubt about the core of her being was one of the limits she needed to break.
Perhaps it was the most important limit to match the Apostles and Immortals.
At this point, any forward movement, any progress, would suffice for Selene’s frustration.
She just needed a step forward. She was becoming desperate for proof she was still growing.
For proof that she was more than Potomac’s homunculi–
“Maybe I’ll just– go talk to Norn about it now. It’s late, but I know she doesn’t sleep.”
Selene stood up from bed with a renewed determination. She was half undressed, wearing a pair of tight, long bottoms and nothing up top but a sports bra. Most of the time she just wore her pilot suit. She was supposed to be on standby, but they had a whole zoo of people they picked up while she was out of sorts, and Samoylovych had been assigned as the standby pilot instead.
Swiping on a wall panel, she caused it to open, revealing a mirror and sink.
Her reflection looked sullen. Her skin was pale, her eyes had shadows under them.
Her red hair was long and a little too messy–
Selene blinked and her countenance changed immediately.
On the other side of the mirror–
Long red hair, a white leathery robe, and a black horn bursting out of the side of her head.
She staggered back as if the image in the mirror had threatened to leap out.
Images flooded her mind that she couldn’t place;
The Antenora was gone from around her and she was standing somewhere–
There was a silver-haired female Shimii beside her–
And a red-headed male Shimii approaching her in anger–
His burning fist about to collide with her–
Selene fell back, she screamed, seized her head, kicked her feet, thrashed helplessly.
Her antennae stood on end, the tips widened and spread and felt hot.
Standing erect, they became hyper-sensitive, as if something was in the air.
Selene felt a distant rumbling in the aether–
Colors came flooding into the room like a cloud of poison gas–
Her power of clairvoyance, her sensitivity to aether, it was not normally this strong; she was much more of a kinetic in skillset– yet now she felt an ominous, chilling feeling gripping her heart, felt the stirring in the grand current of the aether. She felt it so strongly, like she was inside the Jagdkaiser or doped with psynadium. Something out there, something vast, a gigantic presence had shifted the aether, like the movement of a dreadnought shifted the water around it.
There was a great roar in the currents!
Aether was everywhere, it was swirling and writhing and taking over her senses–
So powerfully that Selene felt it, still felt it on her skin like the tremor of an earthquake.
Selene forced herself to stand and started to run out to the hall in her underwear–
At the door, she bumped into someone and nearly screamed again.
“Selene? What’s wrong?”
Adelheid van Mueller. An idiot; she didn’t know anything!
“I– I need to talk– to Norn. Something’s– weird, something’s wrong!”
Her feet grew unsteady and Adelheid grabbed hold of her.
She struggled, but– her body–
“Hey! You’re teetering around everywhere! Have you taken your medicine?”
As much as she wanted to move her body felt as if in water, slow, without earth beneath–
She hardly heard Adelheid’s voice, it was growing distant–
Colors, colors everywhere–
Aether swarming everywhere like a great cascade–
Did Adelheid not sense it?
Did it not shake her bones and sear her skin?
Selene reached her hand to the side of her head and she could feel the horn–
“Adelheid, please, get Norn, please–”
She felt her body being moved back to her room–
Something pricked her hip, plunging deep and sharp.
“I’ve injected your medicine. You’re going to be okay Selene. I’m here, okay?”
Selene could feel it–
Adelheid’s warmth, holding her close, holding her safe.
For a brief instant, she felt an almost overwhelming surge of emotion for that redheaded woman and her soft face, her bright-colored eyes looking down at her with their gentle concern. Being held by someone was something Selene had hardly ever felt in her entire life, and that gentle warmth lulled her out of her panic, and into a deep, dreamless, peaceful sleep.
“You’re going to be okay.” Adelheid said.
Those gentle words reverberated in the soft, black-tinged colors that flew off her body.
Until everything turned black, and the aether grew as still as Selene herself.
Before her consciousness faded she heard a voice–
“Norn– What is happening to her?”
“How do you feel, Sonya?”
“I feel like an earthquake went off in my brain.”
When the colors overwhelmed her, Shalikova was positive she had seen things which were quickly losing sense and coherence to her. She was somewhere dark, there were figures– what she recalled most strongly is everyone was a Shimii for some reason, or at least everyone she strongly remembered. A Shimii had been superimposed over a crying Maryam as well. Was all of this real, or was like a dream? Was her brain trying to process something through random memories?
None of these were her own memories.
Shalikova suddenly blurted out the question that was rolling in her head.
“How much do you know about Shimii?”
Maryam bobbed her head to one side.
Shalikova rubbed her head. It must have been some kind of dream.
“Maryam, that– that was a lot more than soothsaying!” Shalikova raised her voice to just above a whisper, as if shouting in a volume no one would hear. “You didn’t just take my palm and tell me a fortune. I was seeing colors and visions that I can’t place. I wasn’t prepared for any of this! What did you do to me?”
“I baptized you!” Maryam said innocently. “You said you saw the colors before right?”
“I did. I saw the colors in the hangar, and in the ocean, and around you once. It was totally random. Now though for some reason, I feel like I can see them whenever I want. Like if I squeeze my eyes just right I’m seeing them around you. It’s not as overwhelming as before, I guess. But I don’t even know what they mean at all.”
Maryam nodded knowingly, wearing a smile too pleasant for how Shalikova felt in that moment. “You were seeing auras at random times because your special power was on the cusp of awakening. I drew out the power that was struggling inside you, so that you could become used to it, and control it without losing your senses to it. Scrunching your eyes will hurt probably, so try to just focus gently on the colors, or on something else if you don’t want to see them anymore.”
“I– I’m having a lot of trouble accepting I have a special power Maryam.”
“Not everyone can see those auras! In fact, I almost thought that I would fail to baptize you, because when I was trying to tell your fortune I couldn’t read your aura, I could barely see anything. Oh no, why are you making a mean face?”
Shalikova furrowed her brows and closed her fists at her sides.
“What do you mean read my aura Maryam? You need to back up and explain all of this!”
“Ah! I will, don’t yell!” Maryam squirmed a little. “Ah, nothing is going like I thought!”
Seeing Maryam turning white and shying away– Shalikova sighed deeply at herself.
She tried to control her temper. She had promised to trust Maryam, right?
“Sonya, please don’t hate me–”
Seeing those gentle eyes filling with fear was mortifying.
Maryam had promised to tell the truth about her soothsaying. Thinking about it rationally, Maryam had done much more than just tell the truth. Somehow she had shown Shalikova the colors and their insane possibilities, first-hand. She enabled her to control the colors somehow. The more Shalikova thought about it, the more this was a truly radical action on her part, an almost dangerous level of trust that she had given to Shalikova so easily, having not even known each other a month yet!
Anyone else who saw a Katarran doing these things might pull a gun on them.
Explaining it to the rest of the crew would be daunting. What if they locked her up?
Maryam trusted her with this miraculous power. She had gone to Shalikova first– ever since they met.
“I’m sorry Maryam.” Shalikova said. “I didn’t get how difficult this must be for you.”
“I’m sorry too.” Maryam said. She turned her gaze to the floor, kicking her feet a little, looking ashamed.
“I should’ve explained everything better before I did this to you, but I was–”
Shalikova walked forward and took Maryam’s hand in her own.
It was a sudden reaction, and it even startled Maryam a little, but she tried to be gentle.
In her heart there was soft, warm feeling she was hoping to convey.
“You were excited to have someone else who knew about this right?” She said. “Someone to share it with you. A partner in crime. I bet you’ve been really lonely, having the burden of hiding this with nobody who understood. And you’ve been having to use this power of yours to survive all this time, too. That’s why you were so keen on me when you first saw me right? You could tell we were alike, even though I couldn’t. So to me this was all really crazy, but for you, it must have meant a lot.”
“Um. Yes. That’s– you really hit the mark.”
Maryam turned bright red, staring down at the hand Shalikova was holding.
There was no reason for Shalikova to be angry at Maryam.
She smiled at her instead, with the fullest of warm feelings.
“I’m happy you chose me.” Shalikova said. “But you have to explain everything that you know to me so I can understand. And I need to you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone else about any of this, okay? Tell me, and then I’ll figure out a way to let anyone else in, okay? I don’t want you to get treated like an alien for this. They’ll see and hear it from me first, instead.”
Maryam stared straight into her eyes, her skin and hair turning ever more flushed.
Those diaphanous little fins atop her head practically wiggled.
“Yes! Yes of course Sonya!”
She smiled more happily than Shalikova had ever seen it.
Her eyes glistened with tears in the dim monochrome light of the hangar.
“Thank you! Sonya, thank you so much. You are such a wonderful soul.”
Shalikova was a bit surprised to see Maryam weeping, but then again, she felt moved too.
She had spent a lot of time hiding from people’s gazes, fearing what others might notice. How she might be read– when she decided as a kid to get on hormones and transition, that was one thing that led her to see, over time, the gazes of those around her. When she started to stand out as a soldier and a pilot, she saw gazes– admiring where they shouldn’t be, envious in ways she didn’t understand, fawning, self-righteous, critical and two-faced. And she saw herself making the same eyes too.
When her sister passed away– the change in gazes that had once been unfriendly–
Shalikova couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand having to fear those gazes that were so hard to read.
Gazes that changed so often; that could catch you off-guard if you were not vigilant.
Gazes that made her feel so lonely even while surrounded by people.
Maryam had been hiding from people’s eyes too. She also had to be vigilant and guarded.
Except with Shalikova. In that sense maybe they could understand each other.
In this hangar, they turned their gazes on each other and something extraordinary happened.
Shalikova would not discount it. She would not try to avoid Maryam’s gaze any longer.
She would not betray the extraordinary trust that Maryam had given her.
Nor the burgeoning, strange feelings which that trust engendered in Shalikova’s heart.
She didn’t fully understand it, but Maryam was starting to feel special to her too.
“Okay. Well. With that settled. Can you explain special powers to me like I’m a little kid?”
Shalikova said this, trying to shake her own self out of just staring at Maryam’s eyes.
“Of course. Hmm. We should start with auras then. So let me see if I remember, um, the way this was explained to me was,” Maryam’s fins wiggled on her head as she fell deep into thought. “Aura is an invisible interstitial, energy, thingy, in the world, and its inert most of the time. Aura is like footprints that sensations of living beings are leaving in the sand of the world.” She looked at Shalikova with an embarrassed expression. “Is this making any sense so far Sonya?”
Shalikova blanked for a moment. “Um. Sort of. So are the colors and aura, the same thing?”
“Yep. Technically it’s called ‘Aether’ but when it gathers around a person it’s called their ‘aura’. It changes colors based on how the person is feeling and stays that color even if it drifts away. For a little while anyway. Red and Orange are like anger or hate, Green and Yellow are like anxiety and sickness, Blue is happiness, Purple is like pride, Black relates to death, White aura is like, peace or faith.”
Shalikova looked around the hangar. Nobody around. The coast was still clear for them.
“Can you explain to me how you did your soothsaying?” She asked. “What were you trying to do a few days ago when you got the nosebleed? Did that have something to do with the colors– the aether or aura around me?”
Maryam nodded her head, gesticulating with her tentacles. “So normally, if you focus on people’s auras, you can kind of get a sense of what the person is thinking. It’s not like you can read their minds, unless they’re really simple-minded, and it’s not just because of the color. It’s like there’s also a texture, and you can feel what that person is going through, so you can learn a bunch of stuff about them. It’s different for everyone, some people are really easy to read this way and others are more mysterious. Soothsaying is just a cheap trick to make money; the way I did it was reading people’s emotions to see what they were thinking about and then I told them a fortune based on cold reading coupled with what I learned from their aura.”
Shalikova tried not to think of it as a violating act– despite feeling immediate misgivings.
“And with me, you can’t get anything?”
Maryam ran a hand through her hair, one of her tentacles shaking like a head saying ‘no.’
“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all, and I thought maybe I had just gotten rusty, so I put more focus and effort into it, but it just made my head hurt.” Maryam said. “That’s another thing about this power, if you misuse it, you can hurt yourself. It’s like trying to twist your leg backwards, but instead of your leg, it’s your brain, or something.”
“I see. I don’t get it though, you’ve been at this for way longer than me, right? So why wouldn’t you be able to see through me? I should be about as strong as wet stone paper to you. And yet you’re saying I’m unreadable to you?”
“It doesn’t work like you think.” Maryam said. She smiled, as if amused by the idea. “So, lets call the power by its name– it’s called psionics or psychic power. I had a mentor who taught me about it. Because it is something that can be taught. But of course, not many people know about it. So when someone has a lot of psionic potential, but hasn’t been taught anything about psionics, my mentor called that a ‘seed’. When someone has a natural ability to resist psionics even if they’ve never been taught about it, my mentor called that ‘potential’. What I did to you, she called ‘baptism’ — deliberately flooding someone with aether. It can only be done to people who have some kind of latent psionic ability. Otherwise, they have to study and awaken power themselves.”
“Psionics, huh? Who was your mentor? Is Solarflare LLC related to them?”
Maryam started running her fingers through her hair again and averted her gaze.
“I’ll– I’ll introduce them to you someday, but right now, I’d rather not talk about it.”
Shalikova nodded. She was trying to be understanding. Maryam was already doing a lot.
“Sure. No problem. So, this psionic stuff, you say it can be taught, but that people also need to have potential to do it? So even if they don’t know about it, they can have it. So is it like, something you’re born with in your genes?”
“Sonya, absolutely no.” Maryam replied passionately. “It’s nothing to do with genes.”
“Huh?” Shalikova was confused by the reaction. “But you said I was a special girl–?”
“When I say you are special, I do not mean you were born any certain way Sonya! That’s not it at all!” Maryam said. She sounded almost offended by the notion suddenly, her voice distressed. “You were born in a slave state, survived a revolution, and worked hard to be here, on a special mission to save everybody in the Empire! Your willpower and determination aren’t because you were born special, but because you cultivated a special soul in you through your actions.” She averted her gaze, perhaps a bit embarrassed by her own excitement. She rubbed the side of her left arm with her right hand, sighing a little bit.
“For us Katarrans, it’s tough to escape the idea that you can only do what you were born to. But the Warlords didn’t get born with their fleets and soldiers. You aren’t a Katarran at all and you’re the closest I’ve seen to the gallantry of an ideal Warlord. And I’m not here just because of my birth either. My mentor taught me that, anyone in the world can grow to see the Aether and use psionics; the difficult thing is, what will they do with that strength when they have it? I didn’t do this lightly. I want to help people. And I think you will help and save a lot of people with your power. That’s why I want to help you use it! And I’m glad you want to teach the Brigand about it too! Someday, Sonya, I want everyone to see the Aether! I strongly believe everyone can do it!”
Shalikova stared, wide-eyed, her heart stirring at Maryam’s grand declaration.
Without squinting her eyes, she tried to take in Maryam’s aura, to focus and refine it.
She saw the colors of Maryam’s determination, purple, white, a band of red, a band of black. Pride, euphoria, passion (perhaps not “anger” as Maryam had put it) and that ominous black band, maybe a hint that, whether or not this mission killed her, she was still committed to her goal. Shalikova recalled what Maryam said about texture and she thought she got a sense of purity from Maryam’s aura, like sliding fingers down perfect, crystalline sheets, smooth and unblemished.
“I understand.” Shalikova said. “I think that would be pretty amazing, Maryam.”
“I think so too! If everyone could talk like we are right now, and see each other like we see each other, Sonya, I really think that would be the end of wars and killing. We’d all help each other instead of hurting each other. There would not be mistrust or misunderstandings any longer. So someday, I want to help everyone I can, to learn about this power!”
She had such a sweet expression, for such a tragic idea.
Shalikova did not want to tell her what she really thought about Maryam’s ambition.
There was no way that war would end so simply, as long as there were different classes and interests vying for control. As long as there were oppressors and subjugators, and as long as there were revolutionaries and liberators, there would be fighting. Maryam didn’t understand social class and politics. Mistrust and misunderstanding would only be heightened if the idea of psionic powers was revealed to the world as purely true, and if its practice was made known. There would have to be a time, a process, whereby people became psionic, and those who weren’t would be full of the worst distrust and misunderstanding.
She felt nothing but trepidation at the idea of Maryam becoming a herald for this wild idea.
As if the future, already chaotic and uncertain, had become more so.
Now that Shalikova knew about “psionics” and auras, things already complicated turned ever more twisted in her mind. All she could do in that moment was smile, nod, and silently support Maryam as best as she could.
“I’ll– I’ll do everything I can to help, Maryam.” Shalikova said.
Crazy as it was, this girl had a dream that shone with all the might of her soul. Shalikova found herself moved by it.
Though anxious, she wanted nothing more at that moment, than to remain at Maryam’s side.
“I was afraid that this might happen, I just thought it wouldn’t be so soon.”
“Quit acting like you foresaw this, it only makes you seem callous!”
Norn put on a sour expression, while Adelheid looked shocked at how she raised her voice.
From one of the bunks, Selene watched them, wrapped up in a big bundle of blankets. She had fainted after having her medication administered via emergency injection; before that she remembered completely losing her mind, seeing things that weren’t there, going hysterical. She felt ashamed of herself to be in the presence of Norn in such a state, pale, downcast, hiding in her blankets like a little kid. She had woken up to find Norn and Adelheid sat side by side, staring, staging an intervention.
It felt like the kind of HR-type meeting the Sunlight Foundation would sometimes do.
However, with Selene’s bedroom as the setting, it took on a shameful quality. Adelheid had given her a fruit jelly drink pouch, and though she welcomed the brain sugar, she thought it made her look even more immature to be sucking on juice after everything that happened. She felt weak and foolish for having broken down. Despite this, she knew she couldn’t run away or tell these two to go away, not in the same tone that she did to Lydia or Potomac. Selene told them what happened.
Her mirror, the visions, the things she had felt in the aether. She laid herself bare.
Norn scratched her golden blond hair and sighed in response.
“You saw a red-haired woman with a horn in the mirror, correct?”
“Yeah.” Selene mumbled. She sipped her juice pouch.
She couldn’t read whether Norn was exasperated or worried about this.
“And a silver-haired Shimii, and a red-haired Shimii. And you felt a quake in the Aether?”
“Yep.” She finished off her juice pouch with a sigh.
“Well, I didn’t feel anything in the Aether like you say you did. And I’m not so sure you would be more sensitive than I to the Aether, so I’m going to dismiss that part as just nerves.” Norn said. “As far as your visions, it looks like you’ve already forgotten most of what you saw, and the rest can’t just be prodded out of you. So that’s a line of inquiry dead in the water also.”
“Even if you read my mind, you wouldn’t be able to see it?” Selene asked.
Norn was correct– immediately after waking, Selene had the barest memory of what she had seen. At the time, it had felt so vivid, like she was standing between worlds in a way that caused her to panic, that made her body feel wrong. Now all she had was a few details, figures in empty, cavernous space with the barest scrap of their identity. Like a dream only an eighth-remembered.
But still, Selene always thought Norn had incredible, far-reaching, and unique powers–
“Reading people’s minds beyond surface thoughts and emotions is nearly impossible. Especially if you care about the state of their mind after.” Norn paused and crossed her arms, her face growing stern. “Believe it or not, I do care about you; I’m here to try to help you get your head on right before we reach Goryk’s Abyss. You need to calm down about that vision of yours.”
Selene didn’t know what to say to that.
“Norn, I saw myself in the mirror as a monster. I saw a vision of some place–”
“You saw a monster. It wasn’t you unless you obsess with it being you.” Norn said simply.
That was such a nonchalant and dismissive response it shocked Selene’s senses completely.
“But–” She could hardly believe it. “How am I supposed to feel after seeing that, Norn?”
“You should take your medicine, get rest, eat regularly, and practice your meditation. You’re unwell.”
“You’re keeping secrets from me again.” Selene said. She felt her heart sink with defeat.
Of course– there was no other reason for her to be acting this way. Everyone was lying to her again. All of them were keeping the meaning of this vision from her just like they were keeping her history, her parents and past, hidden from her.
Selene convinced herself this was the real issue.
Norn ran a hand over her face and looked down at the floor, groaning in response.
Adelheid stared at her then cracked an incongruous grin. “You’re so bad with kids, I can’t believe it.”
“I never signed up to parent anyone, or to deal with so many brats.” Norn shot back.
“I’ll never bear you a child. You’ve dissuaded me from motherhood.” Adelheid pouted.
Norn’s stared incredulously, “Is that what you’re on about now? I’m sterile, so it’s not–”
Off in their own little world again. They weren’t even taking her seriously.
She pulled down her antennae into the bundle of blankets with her hands and covered herself in them like a fort, protecting her from this ridiculous exchange. Hiding in a little pocket of shadow with her arms around her knees, exhausted and bitter. Norn and Adelheid’s salacious argument continued in the background for several minutes. For a moment she just wanted to disappear. She did not understand anything. She felt like she was talking past them, and they were talking past her.
She had been right. Norn fundamentally did not understand what she wanted.
Because Norn was so strong and so sure, she did not need to think about her past. She was never bothered by her origins. Potomac had compared Selene to other bits of meat goo they grew in their labs, and as far as Norn was concerned this shouldn’t have bothered her. She should have simply tuned it out. But it was not possible– Selene did not have the world in her hands like Norn.
Norn knew about Selene’s past, but she seriously thought Selene didn’t need to know.
To her none of that mattered; and now she didn’t know what else was being kept from her!
All of her life, how many things had she been lied to about?
“Norn, look, you scared her.” Adelheid said. “Selene, please forgive her and come out.”
Norn grunted. “I scared her? You’re the one who started publically litigating my fertility.”
“It’s ok. I’m ok.” Selene mumbled. “You can just leave. I’m full of drugs, I’ll be fine.”
She heard footsteps approaching and felt a strong hand settle where her head was. Blankets peeled gently from over Selene, and Norn patted down her head, antennae, and all, smiling gently in a way that Selene had never seen her smile. Norn could be cruel and mocking and stern, those were the moods that Selene had seen her in. She couldn’t place this guffawing camaraderie at all. Still, it didn’t feel so bad to have Norn’s hand over head. It almost stilled her heart for a second.
“You both suck at taking care of adults too, let alone fucking kids.” Selene grumbled.
“We’re trying! I was kinda hoping you’d think we were funny.” Adelheid said, shrugging.
Norn’s hand began to rub down Selene’s head more strongly, messing up her hair.
“Could you stop that? Teasing is the last thing I want from fucking Norn the Praetorian.”
Selene pushed that hand away, sighing. Her exhaustion was reaching its limits with this.
“Are you both here to flirt and make fun of me, or are you here to help?” She protested.
Adelheid and Norn looked to each other briefly, smiling. Norn sat back down.
“One is part of the other.” Norn said. “Selene, do you think I have no sympathy for you?”
“Of course you don’t.” Selene mumbled. “I’m just here to kill people for you.”
Euphrates had told her she was a ward of the Sunlight Foundation. But Selene only identified one possible purpose for her existence. Like the mass-produced lab assistants, she had to have been made to serve them. Selene wanted to fashion herself a soldier, a psionic warrior. She read about military campaigns, marveled at the weapons the Sunlight Foundation produced like their Colombus-class cruisers. When Yangtze made a deal with the Fueller family, Selene was tapped as a pilot the Foundation could trust. That confirmed to Selene what she was to Euphrates and the others. She was a weapon. She was made to kill people.
“Why would you have any sympathy for me?” Selene said. “I’m only here because of the Jagdkaiser.”
Norn’s eyes glowed with a red ring around them. She was performing psionics.
Selene was not scared of it. She could tell Norn was just reading her aura.
Her innate defenses would have been raised against Norn if she tried to do any more.
“You think I don’t care because you’re just here to be used by me.” Norn said. “But I was the one who chose you to join the Antenora. You weren’t sent here without reason. I have an agreement with Erich and Yangtze that you specifically would test pilot the Jagdkaiser. And I have an agreement that, thereafter, you would be released from service. To do whatever you want. I chose you, Selene. And I chose you against a lot of resistance from Euphrates. You are here because of me.”
Selene stared at Norn, eyes drawing wide, render once again stunned by the Praetorian.
Was this woman not a demon who killed thousands? Where did her interest come from?
Handpicked by Norn? A deal to be released from service? Why– she didn’t even know–?
“I don’t get it. I don’t get it– why–? Why would you do that? I’m– I’m nobody–? How did you even know?”
“How did I know about you? I’d been suspecting you existed for quite some time.”
Selene continued to stare at the two of them, tears building in her eyes. She shook her head.
“I don’t understand. What– what’s the point for you? Why would you go out of your way and challenge Euphrates? Why would you agree to release me afterward? I don’t understand! I’m just a random piece of biological equipment!”
“No you are not. You are a scared girl who is being done wrong in the same way that I was by the exact same people.”
“So– so what? If that’s what you think then are you turning your back on the Sunlight Foundation?”
Norn grinned. “The only reason I am ‘helping’ them is to take advantage. To stop them from getting their way all the time. I won’t stand them for them having you, so I took you away. You don’t belong in their silver cage.”
Adelheid spoke up. “Selene, Norn won’t admit it, but she does care about you.”
Every word came like a shock, burning through Selene’s sinews.
She grabbed hold of her antennae, gritting her teeth.
“Huh? I can’t even process this! Norn the Praetorian trying to tell me she’s always had a conscience and that she’s the good guy? And you think this all supposed to be helping me?” Selene openly scoffed at them.
Norn fixed Selene with a curiously gentle gaze, another truly mystifying expression.
“Did you consider yourself for a villain for being at my side?” She asked.
“Yeah? I’d be really stupid to think I’m the heroine, killing people left and right.”
Selene bitterly gave an answer right away. Of course they were all monsters on this ship.
“Killing the people deemed narratively worthy of killing is a time-honored heroic deed.”
Norn continued to grin, so self-assured that she was right, always with the right response.
Selene wanted to find some argument to knock down her sophistry–
–but she couldn’t because she wanted to believe it. Fresh tears streamed down her cheeks.
“What do you want me to say? You want me to thank you? I won’t.” Selene sobbed.
Norn returned her scorn with calm, gentle words.
“All I want is to give you an opportunity and a future. I have hope that you will continue to fight alongside us Selene, but what I want most is to free you from the Sunlight Foundation’s grip. I would like you to exceed their sick whims. People like us are not wanted by the world. We are used and abused. It is only right that we take up weapons for our own cause.”
“I’m not like you. I can’t run around thriving on my own stupid philosophy.” Selene said.
Despite her words, Selene felt strangely moved.
No one had ever approached her, trying to give to her anything more than a weapon, an objective, a task to complete or something to master. No one talked to her about her future. No one had told her they had hopes and wishes for her–
Except, perhaps, that self-righteous bitch Euphrates–
“I will tell you what I know about your parents, if you promise you won’t chase after it.”
Norn spoke solemnly. Selene’s gaze shot up from the floor and fixed Norn’s red eyes.
Was this really happening? Was this really finally happening? Did she hear right?
“You’ll stop keeping secrets from me? You really will?”
Selene started crying even more openly.
She felt she was prying open her chest and spilling blood out, something inside her hurt.
“I can’t promise that. I am only promising what we agreed to when you joined me.” Norn said.
Selene was practically begging. “Norn, I’m going crazy. Potomac compared me to one of those fucking things she put in the Jagdkaiser. I need to know I wasn’t just born from a machine for no reason. I need to know– please!”
“Then promise me you will take what I say and bury it and live the rest the of your life.”
“Selene, I’m not letting her walk out of here without saying what she knows.”
Adelheid spoke up and set a hand down atop Norn’s as if pinning her arm to the bed.
Norn shot her a sidelong look, and Adelheid instantly lifted her hand with a small smile.
“I don’t need to get ganged up on.” Norn said. “Selene, please just promise me.”
Selene didn’t feel in the right mind to promise anything, but she was desperate.
“I won’t– I won’t try to chase after my parents or do anything like that. Is that okay?”
“I’ll hold you to it. Remember that the thing I hate most is liars.” Norn sighed deeply. “I was hoping you would forget about it, but if you need this, I just hope it can help you move on. It’s not a nice or pretty story. Prepare yourself for that.”
There was nothing she could say to that. Especially not in the state she was in.
So Selene remained quiet, while the blond and the redhead exchanged worried glances.
“What I’m going to say is conjecture; but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t have evidence.” Norn said. “‘Anahid’ was Euphrates’ suggestion right? Then she and I must have similar suspicions as to what really happened twenty years ago.”
“Euphrates said it was a surname that was fitting for me.” Selene said. “I knew it was a clue; but I queried Eden in every possible spelling of that name and couldn’t find persons in the Sunlight Foundations’ records with that name, either first name or surname or even nicknames or codenames.” Eden was a record system in Frederich’s Abyss. Euphrates had designed it, and it contained data, and even the digital memoirs of many Foundation personnel. It was ultimately useless but sparked her quest to know.
After all if she was the child of people who were struck from the Foundation’s records–
Could it be that she was not just a science experiment, but someone born for a reason?
“Eden huh? Forget about that garbage then. I’ll tell you what they’re hiding.”
Selene nodded her head. Norn was so strong; Eden contained memories of her in it and yet she was apparently not curious at all about what Selene knew about her. To Norn, that past really was dead. After all, in the Eden database, she was always called a name she never used: Cocytus. Perhaps that was the reason that she wanted Selene to forget about her own past so strongly.
But Selene was sick of thinking of herself as just the product of a science experiment.
Norn began to unveil the details, while Selene stood in rapturous attention.
“I’ll refer to the lead scientist in the project to create you as your mother. Her ego definitely would have led her to use her genes to create you. Your mother’s codename was Asan. She believed that psionics was genetic, and that this explained why people with no knowledge of psionics could exhibit different amounts of psionic potential and aethereal defenses. Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation treated this as a cosmic lottery for hundreds of years, but your mother was obsessed with finding a deterministic reason, and she strongly believed that biology held the secret. She was a complete eugenicist who sought to engineer a human who was born psychic, in order to prove that psionically gifted people had psionically gifted genes to pass on.”
Eugenicist was a quite unsavory term, but Selene still felt her heart suddenly go aflutter.
She had a mother– her name was Asan and Selene had been made with her genes!
A Sunlight Foundation researcher had created her– as part of a special project.
Selene was taken by the notion. It was so darkly romantic. She saw Asan in her mind, a deathly serious woman who had devoted herself enough to science, at all costs, that the Sunlight Foundation had made her a River and given her the resources to engineer a psionic being. And Selene was the product! She had not just come from nowhere! Now she had a context for her existence!
Silly as it was, it felt like an empty part of her started filling, like she was more than shadow.
Norn continued, briefly scanning Selene’s face for an expression.
“Now we enter into the realm of educated guesswork.” She said coldly. “Your father was probably the Republican agent Samuel Anahid. He worked for the General Intelligence Agency. Twenty years ago, Asan’s project was being run through Bio-Radiance, one of the Sunlight Foundation’s front companies, and it appears the Republicans infiltrated the company to use as a front of their own as well. Bio-Radiance was founded as Rhinea began to liberalize, and Republican sympathy ran high. I can’t speak as to her actual motives for helping the G.I.A in the first place, and I don’t know all the details of the Republican’s infiltration, but I think it’s safe to say she had a close relationship to Samuel and she part of his plot to murder the Emperor out of the feelings she had for him. Euphrates found out about Samuel and the G.I.A. connection and was desperate to stop it– enough that despite herself, she went out on a limb and reached out to me in the capacity of a Fueller enforcer to investigate further.”
Selene’s brain lit up– she imagined something devilishly romantic must have happened.
Never before had Selene thought to herself that she could’ve been a product of love.
That was the way she was characterizing this web of conspiracies to herself.
Asan must have used Samuel’s DNA to complete her, to immortalize their tragic love.
Samuel. Her father; but she didn’t know how to feel about him.
Selene knew what Rivers were like. She had been a River herself. She knew the culture of the Sunlight Foundation.
Asan appeared vividly in her head, well-kept, white lab coat, the cutting edge of technology at her fingertips.
Proud, driven, unwilling to set aside her goals for any reason. Her project, Selene, was her highest expression.
Rivers did whatever they were ordered; but they also did whatever it took to satisfy their ambitions.
They were once-ordinary people who were given infinite resources to bring to life their wildest imaginations.
Despite having never known her, Selene felt she knew Asan, vividly, closely.
Asan was a figure who made perfect sense, who fit perfectly in Selene’s story.
Samuel was more of a mystery. Selene could not imagine what he might have been like.
She wanted to believe that his enigmatic world collided with hers, and the resulting star-crossed love gave birth to her.
In Selene’s mind, Asan was fast becoming the principal character in her birth– Samuel was already beginning to fade.
Norn continued despite Selene’s wild fantasizing.
“I believe Asan must have used Samuel’s DNA for you. But I never got to the bottom of it all. Asan’s actions, and Euphrates’ role in opposing them, ended with me capturing Samuel, incriminating Konstantin’s favorite wife in the murder plot, and neither of them gave up anything, to the last breath. I was no longer in control of the situation after the incident at Schwerin Island. Maybe Konstantin ended up knowing more than me, but it’s impossible to ask him. So we can only guess.”
Norn turned her gaze away from Selene, as if she were staring into the past itself.
“So when I say you are not to dig into this Selene, I mean it in the strongest terms. All of your allies will become your enemies if you take your parent’s side. In that tragedy, Euphrates and I were principal actors. Do you want revenge on us?”
Adelheid stared at Norn in sudden shock. Norn’s eyes remained fixed on the purple-haired pilot.
Selene shook her head solemnly in return.
Some part of her had been prepared for what Norn had told her.
Whether her parents had been heroes or heretics to the Sunlight Foundation–
Selene had already accepted that if they didn’t exist in Eden’s database, they were probably controversial and dead.
When she first realized she might have parents at all, Selene worked out every negative emotion she had.
That process of giving up on ever meeting them, had been done long ago.
All she wanted was to know. She held no grudges. She had already lived an entire life with feelings of loss.
“I could never turn against you, Norn. Or Euphrates. Not for something that happened so long ago.”
Norn looked relieved. Her posture loosened up a bit. “I’m glad. Euphrates should have never told you that surname. Regardless, now you know what I know. I believe you were the result of Asan’s research, made with Samuel’s DNA and her own. I urge you to move on past that and forge your own identity. On this ship, I forbid you to bring up your parents again.”
Norn turned her gaze on Adelheid. The redhead raised a finger, pointing to herself.
“Moi? Why are you looking at me?”
“You’re also another busybody who needs to forget the past. Are we clear?”
Adelheid rolled her eyes. “Sure, Norn, absolutely whatever.”
“I’m being serious here, you flighty brat. Set a good example for Selene and move on.”
Selene was no longer paying any attention to Norn and Adelheid’s relationship theater.
In her mind, regardless of what she promised Norn, she was losing herself in a flight of fancy.
Hugging her legs close to her chest, her antennae flicking, a little smile on her face.
Her mother had made her;
from a passionate tryst with her father;
in a quest to create a being born powerfully psionic;
Selene was gifted! She was special! She was made special! Born into incredible power out of maternal love!
Every time Selene was given a task or a training to undertake when she was younger, she always aced it. She was an exceptional Diver pilot, she had a unique psionic skill, she was adept in every element of psionics that the Sunlight Foundation had cared to track. Personally studied under the Immortal Euphrates and now chosen of the Apostle Norn. Selene was not nobody! She was special! Powerful and unique! She had been born to a fateful destiny! She was the fruit of the search for psionic potential in the human gene, and surely, that meant her mother had succeeded! She was a genetically psionic wunderkind!
As if to interrupt her reverie, Norn raised her voice once more.
“One more thing, about your visions. It absolutely cannot leave this room either.”
“Huh?” Adelheid said. “Whipping back around suddenly? What happened to moving on?”
“She wants to know, and I want her to trust me. Be quiet.”
“Of course!” Selene said, taken in by a rapturous, insane joy. “Tell me!”
Norn seemed to have noticed her excitement and returned another stern look.
“You want me to stop keeping secrets from you, right? Then I’ll tell confide in you something that must remain secret. Something you saw. You said red hair and a horn and a white robe that looks fleshy; the woman you described seeing in the mirror has features that recall the Omenseer’s Autarch. Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.” Norn finally said.
Her voice had gone quite cold as if she hated saying that name.
“Arbitrator II? Isn’t that Hunter III’s boss? Her remains were recorded in Eden.” Selene said.
“She is not Hunter III’s boss. I’m Hunter III’s boss.” Norn said suddenly. “And I would strongly encourage you not to believe everything you saw in Eden. Euphrates designed the system, but the narrative within was built over time by Yangtze.”
Selene nodded. She had no idea what there was to be skeptical about, however. Eden recorded that Arbitrator II of the 1st Sphere was a kind of spiritual leader of the Omenseers. Omenseers were special psionic beings who could navigate photic currents and past Leviathans. They wandered the world and plied their powers in secret, in exchange for shelter and wealth.
Arbitrator II’s remains had been used to determine that Omenseers were genetically human.
That was everything Selene knew.
“So Norn, if you think I saw Arbitrator II, why would that even happen?” Selene asked.
“I think that your vision was caused by your stressed-out brain recapitulating all of the traumatic memories you must have seen in the Eden system when you were searching for your past. In short, you had a nervous episode.” Norn said sullenly.
“How does that explain the two Shimii I saw? And the weird cave they were all in?” Selene said.
“I bet one of the Shimii was just Mehmed and the other was Faiyad Ayari. Both of them are figures you must have met in the Eden if you know about Arbitrator II. You became so obsessed with your past that you started giving yourself delusions– which I’m sure the Jagdkaiser and your psynadium dosages are only making worse. You need to rest and meditate.”
Selene nodded obediently. She did not think Norn’s explanation was entirely true. It felt just as much conjecture as anything, but it made more sense than her own personal explanation. For a moment, she had thought she was seeing visions of her own past. But that was not possible. If this was Arbitrator II, why would she be seeing visions of her? She could not place that.
“If you say so. I promise I’ll rest up and I won’t mention the visions to anyone.”
That said, she felt a certain sense of relief. She chose to believe this explanation.
Norn had given her a command. She would follow it.
And she finally knew about her parents too. Selene Anahid, daughter of Asan and Samuel.
It felt like the holes in her soul were being refilled.
Selene Anahid was powerful. She had infinite potential for a glorious future.
She no longer needed to fear or waver. She did know who she was, what she was born for.
“I’ll meditate, get my head sorted, and I’ll be ready to sortie again, Praetorian.” She said.
Selene saluted with a determined expression.
Norn and Adelheid noticed the change in her attitude. Both of them smiled at her.
“Fantastic. And what will you do about your past?” Norn asked.
“I’ll make sure it stays in the past.” Selene declared.
“That’s what I like to hear. Come on Adelheid, let’s give the girl some space.”
The two of them stood, each giving Selene a friendly pat on the shoulder before departing. Selene watched them go and watched them shut the lights in her room and close the door. She was in shadow, lying in bed with her blankets over her, dressed in nothing but tight pants and a bra just like where she started the evening, but she felt, suddenly, like an entirely different person.
Riding the high of a catharsis that she never thought would come.
She was not nobody; she was not just anybody.
“I’m the most powerful psychic. Selene Anahid, daughter of Asan,” She told herself, giggling. “My mother made me out of love to prove that psionics was genetic– and did she not succeed? Norn doesn’t know it yet, but–”
Absentmindedly, she withdrew the cylinder of red matter, holding it up above her eyes.
Smiling as she manipulated the fluid within. Norn didn’t know; but Selene was unique.
Maybe she didn’t need to know. It was enough now that Selene herself knew.
Soon Selene drifted off to sleep, more secure in her own self than ever before–
–as the Antenora neared Goryk’s Gorge.