Recall the First Memory…
Her body felt like it was spiraling without end down a blue and green tunnel. Lights from ‘outside’ shone in the same patterns around her, impossible to make sense of. She could not move and had only the faintest impression that her eyes were ‘seeing’ or receiving any stimuli. What she was most aware of was the inexplicable and inexact and yet inextricable conditions of a living being– aware of ‘breath’, aware of ‘body’, aware of ‘space.’
Sometimes, she was made aware of ‘pain’ and through pain, aware of her frailty.
Over time she arrived at additional awareness; and was forced to experience even more. She realized she was cold or hot, and that her surroundings were fluid, and that there were structures keeping her in a specific position, and that if those structures wanted to they could position her differently, changing the lights in front of her eyes. Lights which must have been coming from a place farther than herself, a place beyond her own.
This suspension was indefinite and without beginning– but it did reach an end.
At a time and place impossible to situate, all of the fluid drained from around her.
Her body dropped onto cold, hard ground, her limbs impossible to move under her weight.
And she saw the lights, the eyes, the walls, for what they were, without understanding.
Glassy eyes watching
hands thundering together in a chorus
beneath the symbol and purple glow, in worship,
it had begun–
STEMLINK EXCEPTION OCCURRED UNRECOVERABLE BLOCK
FREE STEMCHAIN ASSOCIATION PROCESS EXECUTING
LINKING TO KNOWN CONTEMPORARY BLOCK–
Recall the Second Memory…
“Hold your hand out to me, like this– very good Arabella!”
In front of her eyes there was the smiling face of a young woman.
“Now, can you say my name? It’s Margery, mɑːdʒəri, Balyaeva—
She had raised her hand, palm forward, and spread her fingers.
Arabella had mimicked her. Palm to palm, fingers to fingers.
“Margery.” She said, slowly, mimicking the pronunciation.
Margery was warm and bright.
Everything around Arabella was cold and colorless. Every wall was grey and the floors were white and the lights were white as well. But the lights around Margery were bright, and her brown hair was rich, and her eyes were shiny. She always smiled around her too.
“Very good! You’re learning well!”
Arabella’s body was almost as big as Margery’s, but she couldn’t understand a lot of what Margery told her, not initially. Gradually, however, her mind and its capabilities expanded. She repeated the things Margery told her, and mimicked Margery’s actions, but she slowly started to understand them more. If she did what she was told, she was a good girl– action and consequence. Then from there, she began to understand the nuances. Margery wanted her to be able to speak the words she was told because she wanted her to learn to say things herself– so Arabella made sounds and not just the ones Margery taught her.
Those sounds, over time, became Arabella’s own words.
Words had meaning, and together, they allowed the two to communicate.
“Very good!” was positive. It meant Margery approved of her and was happy.
“Margery Balyaeva,” was a name, it was given to Margery to make her unique and special.
“You’re learning well!” was positive. Arabella was doing what Margery wanted her to.
Then as Arabella’s words continued expanding, Margery said even more things.
“Have you seen the Colonel lately?” Margery wanted to know about the Others.
“How do you feel today?” Margery wanted to know if the Others had hurt Arabella.
“I’m sorry.” Margery wanted her to know she wasn’t bad like the Others.
“I’ll talk to them.” Margery couldn’t stop the Others from being bad to Arabella.
whom the others were bad to the most–
“I’ll keep them away–”
they kept hurting
INCOMPLETE BLOCK IN DNA SEQUENCE
FREE STEMCHAIN ASSOCIATION PROCESS EXECUTING
REFORMING BLOCK SEQUENCE–
Recall the Third Memory…
Arabella was seated on a bench in a very small room.
There was a glass window across from her and she understood that there were humans, the Others, who were hiding behind it. She understood that Margery was the only human, in this room, who was allowed to be on their side of the glass. There were other rooms, where the rules were very different. In this room, Margery spoke with them while the Others watched behind the glass. They could see her, but she could not see them.
In this room, Arabella sat next to her sister Caderis.
Arabella was named because ‘AB’ and Caderis was named because ‘CD’.
Arabella was One and Caderis was Two.
Margery had told her that one time.
Arabella had not told that to Caderis though.
Unlike Arabella, Caderis was bothered when she tried learning things.
So Arabella did not try to teach her things even though Caderis got in trouble for it.
In fact on that day Caderis had a bruise because the Others had hit her for not learning.
Arabella had not been hit. She did not have a bruise.
Caderis and her were different in other ways too.
Both of them were very pale with red and white hair, and Margery had told them that they were both ‘girls’, like Margery. They had bodies that were similar to her, in height, the length of their arms and legs, the way their chest was. But both of them were very pale while Margery was more ‘pink’. Margery had eyes that were white with a color, and Arabella and Caderis both had eyes that were black with a color. Arabella had small horns on her forehead that parted her hair. Caderis had one bigger horn on the side of her head because the Others had broken her other horn one day. Caderis’ hair was also much more red too.
Both of them had long white dresses with long sleeves. Sometimes they would have no clothes and it would be even colder than usual. But most of the time they had the white dresses. When they got bloody or dirty they would throw one out and get another.
Margery did not have one of those dresses. She always wore a white coat instead.
Arabella liked to remind herself of those details.
If she ever forgot– it would be awful not just for her but for Caderis too.
Arabella had to continue to be good at her words for Caderis’ sake.
Margery addressed the window.
“Their language development and critical thinking is now at about the level of an older child. They are compliant with experiments and their resource needs are generally stable. Physical development is stable; no issues stemming from the use of exotic aDNA. Both have demonstrated the ability to accelerate and manipulate the growth of their cells, but both have agreed with me to maintain stable forms– we don’t know what it might do to their implanted STEM systems if they underwent dramatic biological changes. Because of their increasing mental and emotional abilities, I have a request for the commission.”
“What is your request?” the window asked back.
Upon hearing the Others reply from the glass, Caderis briefly shook beside Arabella.
Arabella sidled closer to her, trying to comfort her with her body heat.
“I need to be able to vet the personnel who will handle Arabella and particularly Caderis. We have had frequent turnover at the base, leading to the use of untrained lower rank personnel unsuitable to care for the subjects; as well as incidents with higher ranking officers who do not understand the complex needs of the subjects nor the unique psychological characteristics of the subjects. It is counter to our mission and progress to allow unsuitable personnel to– influence, the subjects, negatively.”
Margery had wanted to say a word like ‘abuse’. Arabella read this from her colors.
“We’re unable to grant that request, Dr. Balyaeva. We understand that this is not a clean environment– but we are only able to support the scientific endeavor of the mission because of its potential application to military development. Success here would create a revolution in autonomous biomechanics. We know you are referencing incidents with Colonel Greim and Subject Two– these are unfortunate, but the Colonel’s participation is necessary.”
Arabella felt Caderis shake when ‘Colonel Greim’ was said.
In front of the two pale, shaking girls, Margery closed her fists at her sides.
“I cannot guarantee continuing positive results in these tainted conditions.” She said.
“Your results have been very acceptable, Dr. Balyaeva. We are very pleased. Continue to work as you have, and the commission will notify you when we deem it ready to begin the next phase of the mission. We are almost prepared to test the subjects in their capacity as control operatives. We suggest you begin to prepare them for this eventuality.”
When the Others fell silent, the glass window darkened to signify their departure.
Immediately, Caderis bowed her head.
“They’re going to keep hurting me.” She mumbled.
Arabella was surprised.
She hadn’t gotten the same understanding from what the Others had said.
“No, Caderis, Margery is doing a good job. So everything will be okay, right?”
Arabella turned to Margery with a hopeful smile.
But Margery had her head bowed low, with her fists still closed.
She approached Caderis and kneeled down in front of her.
“I’m so sorry.”
and– the walls began to shake– to break down–
Caderis became shrouded in fog–
Margery said more– but she couldn’t–
UNABLE TO VERIFY BLOCK VALIDITY
FREE BLOCK RECONSTRUCTION FAILED TO FILL NEXT NEAREST LINKS
STEMLINK SAFE-FAILING TO NEXT BLOCK IN SEQUENCE
Recall– the fIfTh■? Memory–?
Caderis’ eyes glinted from inside the pitch-black lockup cell.
Arabella’s eyes wanted to fill in the space where her grinning mouth would be.
She could tell Caderis was happy and pleased and it scared her a little bit.
“Will things be okay?” Arabella asked Margery.
Margery and Arabella were outside the cell. Margery had some red on her coat.
But her colors were strangely peaceful.
“They won’t send Caderis away.” She reassured Arabella. “She’s special and important now.” Arabella’s eyes widened. She just wasn’t understanding the explanation very well.
“She hurt the Colonel. Does that make her special and important?” Arabella asked.
“Yes. It makes her much more special and important than before.” Margery said.
There was a grim tone to her voice. Her colors were peaceful– but her voice was sad.
Maybe Margery was glad the Colonel would not be hitting Caderis anymore.
But Arabella thought, she wasn’t happy with how Caderis became special and important.
She did not look like she had when Arabella wrote her homework really well.
That was a good job worth a big smile and gold stars.
“I am the most special and important!” Caderis declared from inside the lockup.
“Will I ever see her again outside the box?” Arabella asked.
Margery nodded. “She’s just in the box for a little while.”
Arabella nodded back.
“But– Arabella, things are going to change a little for her.” Margery said.
She explained how but– her voice was getting distant again– her colors–
STEM– EXITING TO META LAYER–
BLOCK HEURISTIC DECOHERED– FREE REPAIR ENGAGED–
56% OF STEMCHAIN DNA COMPROMISED– BLOCK INTEGRITY DECAYING DUE TO FREE BLOCK ASSOCIATION AND DECRYPTION ALGORITHMS ON CHEMICAL STRUCTURE–
RECOMMENDED TO RETURN BAD BLOCKS TO COLD STORAGE–
RETURN CHAIN TO LAST KNOWN GOOD BLOCK SPACE AND EXIT STEM–?
I must see the rest.
No matter how it hurts and no matter what it does.
DIRECT DNA EDITING IN FREE BLOCK ASSOCIATION AND DECRYPTION IS DIRECTLY COMPROMISING CELL HEALTH, CHEMICAL STRUCTURE AND DNA COHERENCE. ACCESS TO KNOWN BAD BLOCKS IS NOT ADVISED. PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE TO CONTINUE.
I am– I am not a hominin.
This body will recover.
Continue to deploy free association and decryption algorithms.
STEMCHAIN REBOOTING TO NEXT KNOWN BLOCK–
HEARTH LABS IS NOT LIABLE FOR ANY SIDE EFFECTS THAT MAY ARISE.
The– ■■■■■■■ Mem– ■ry–
Arabella was in the lockup too now. It was used for punishment and to scare them.
Sometimes they were there for days without light.
Sometimes they were there for days and there was an open little window at back so they would be buffeted by cold rain and scared by the purple lightning. Sometimes they wouldn’t be fed, but it didn’t matter, because the food was bad and it was not very filling and often, Arabella just ate because it was a good thing to do that was acknowledged.
It was a ‘good job’ to eat.
They had locked Arabella up too because she had been bad too.
Less bad than Caderis, but still bad.
But there was one day at the lockup that was the most different day Arabella experienced.
Because Margery visited them at the lockup now. She called out her presence.
They could only see her from inside through a small slot at the level of their eyes.
Arabella was glad that Margery had come to visit.
“Margery, Caderis is being scary.” Arabella said.
At her side, Caderis had begun to scratch horrible things on the floor every day. Her fingers were bloody because the lockup was made of metal and it was hard to scratch. Despite this, she scratched and scratched. Arabella could barely read it. She said it was her plan. She said she would be Two and Arabella would be One but it was different. It was different than how Margery or the Others said it. The way she said it scared Arabella.
It implied things, horrible, violent things.
But Arabella said nothing because she did not want to hurt Caderis any further.
So she thought Margery would stop her, but–
“It’s fine, Arabella.” Margery said.
Arabella saw Margery’s hand through the slot. She had something in it.
A moment later, the door to the lockup opened completely.
Caderis looked up from the floor in shock, as light entered her side of the room.
On one hand Margery had the key, but on the other– she had a black, L-shaped thing.
Arabella knew it was the object all of the ‘Officers’ carried that made them powerful.
“Caderis,” Margery called out.
Caderis’ eyes darted from Margery’s hands to Margery’s face.
Arabella stood stock still on the bench, staring between Caderis and Margery.
“Caderis, I will leave the door open. I have left many doors open for you.” Margery said.
“Margery, that is against the rules, isn’t it?” Arabella asked.
“Please be quiet, Arabella.” Margery said, frowning.
Despite being acknowledged by Margery, Caderis remained quiet. Her fingers shaking.
Margery bent down to the floor, where Caderis was.
She reached out a hand and stroked Caderis’ cheek. Caderis drew back, grimacing.
“I’m sorry. I will deal with– the Others. You can leave and take Arabella with you.”
Caderis’ eyes narrowed. She stopped fearing Margery. But her colors turned redder.
“I don’t forgive you.” Caderis said. “I don’t forgive you. I’ll never forgive you.”
Margery’s eyes looked back. Almost– hollow. “I know. Please take care.”
“Arabella, we’re leaving. We’re leaving.” Caderis said, snapping her head to her side.
She reached out a hand to grab hold of Arabella’s own. She pulled her softly, at first.
Despite everything, Arabella remained seated on the bench with her hands on her lap.
She knew this was against the rules, and it was wrong and it wasn’t a ‘good job’.
They would get in the worst trouble that they had ever gotten in their lives.
And Margery would get in trouble too.
Arabella didn’t even know what they did to Margery when she got in trouble. It must have been even worse than what they did to Arabella and Caderis because Margery was always following the rules and always doing her very best. She would not have worked so much and been so strict if she wasn’t going to be in even worse trouble.
“Arabella!” Caderis shouted. “She’s letting us go! We can go! We can go outside!”
Margery got up from where she had crouched.
That hollow-eyed, inexpressive face laid on Arabella.
Arabella looked up at that expression seeking acknowledgment.
“Arabella,” Margery said, “Listen to your sister or I will hate you. I will dislike you a lot.”
It was hard to believe what she was hearing. The words rumbled through her heart.
She knew what ‘hate’ was, she could not have ever remained ignorant of such a thing.
Now that she heard that word, she knew what was wrong with Margery.
It was hate, in her too.
That was the black color that suffused her and drove out all her brightness.
And it was the red specks that stained her shoes.
And the grip on the dark thing in her hand.
“Arabella, I know I did a bad thing. Sometimes you have to do bad things.” She said.
“Arabella, Margery is letting us leave. Please listen to Margery.” Caderis said.
There was nothing she could do or say. Everything was so wrong that it hurt.
“Okay.” Arabella said. Without facing anyone. She was feeling that hollowness too.
Darkness crept and grew around her as it had enveloped Caderis and Margery before.
She did not understand how she could live life now or what would happen next.
But she didn’t resist Caderis’ hand taking her and leading her out of the lockup.
And no matter how much she wracked this memory, and turned it, and warped it.
It was impossible to see what face Margery had made as they left her forever.
Re■call– ■■■■ —Pl■ase■
Caderis and Arabella descended a long staircase and arrived at an absolutely massive room the likes of which they had never seen before. For a moment, Arabella was fooled into thinking they must have gone outside even though there was a roof. Even the biggest test areas that Arabella and Caderis ran around in were smaller than this place. They arrived at fenced catwalks overlooking an enormous pool of water, with yellow and red signs that Arabella could just barely read and understand, indicating potential dangers.
Danger of drowning, electrocution, falling, and– violence.
Suspended in the middle of this room, there was an enormous creature.
Upon first sighting its long, silvery-white segmented body, Arabella wanted to call it a ‘thing’ because it resembled some of the things from around the base. They had met things like this before in experiments but none this big and intricate. Long and sleek like a submarine, shiny like metal, with smaller golden legs under its bulky body that looked like knives and folded wings on its back with two long attached structures like ‘rockets’ or ‘engines’; but it also resembled a ‘snake’ or a ‘serpent’ or a ‘dragon’ from stories Margery read to them. She could see that its body was gently stirring, like the chest of a person who was breathing air.
“Wake up! Wake up!”
Arabella was surprised to see Caderis run up to the fence and deliberately shouting at it.
“Wake up! You can understand me, right? Please wake up!”
Around Caderis’ hands, the colors collected for a moment before flying away.
There was a soft thumping noise as they collided with the creature’s back.
In the next instant, the enormous metal claws restraining the creature groaned loudly.
As it lifted its head from below the fence until one of its enormous red eyes appeared.
Like a fleshy mirror encompassing both of the diminutive girls in its sight.
Something like a yellow circle in the middle of its red eye inverted as if fixating on them.
Arabella had seen that shape before too– it was a ‘crosshairs.’
“You’re awake! You’re awake!” Caderis looked overjoyed. Waving her hands and jumping up and down in front of the enormous implacable eye. “I’m going to let you go! I’ll open the locks and open the door and you’ll leave! Do you remember? I told you I would do it!”
Over the eye, a grey film rose up, half-blinking flesh.
Then Arabella heard a deep voice speaking without words.
I remember. Thank you.
“Yes!” Caderis said. “Yes. Of course. You don’t belong here. Please go very quickly!”
In front of them, the eye half-shut. The creature’s restrained wings and legs shuddered.
Will you be able to leave too?
Caderis’ frantic smiling face seemed to slowly settle in recognition.
“We’re going to try. We will find a way.” She said.
“We can swim alongside.” Arabella interjected.
The water under me is colder and darker and harsher than the water you know.
“We– We can find our own way. But it’s important you go.” Caderis said. “They are hurting you too right? They were hurting you like they hurt us? But they won’t hurt anyone anymore. Margery let us out. Margery is against them and we are against them. I promise you.”
Caderis leaned over the fence reached out her pale hand to touch the creature’s sleek hide.
At the touch, the creature’s eye shut. Arabella wanted to think that maybe it was happy.
But its words were some of the coldest she had heard in her little life yet.
I will end them all. I will end all of them and they will never come back. Then I will make a safe place. Please wait for me. Please keep yourselves safe until I come back to protect you.
Arabella was shocked to hear something so violent and felt, for a brief moment, regret.
Caderis, however was delighted. She clapped her hands. She did not hesitate.
“Yes! Thank you! It’s a promise then! I’ll break these– and then you can leave.”
She looked up at the claws holding the massive being inside the room.
All of the colors gathered around her, more intensely than ever.
And they gathered around the claws, and the claws creaked like they never had before.
They pulled apart, pieces of them flying and striking so hard they put holes in the fences.
Each claw, one by one, releasing the creature’s head, its legs, its wings.
Until it fell into the water with a tremendous splash.
Arabella feebly shielded herself with her hands, while Caderis laughed riotously.
Her next target was the massive door at the far back of the room.
Before she could strike the doors open, however, a golden leg slowly rose from the water.
With its flat and blunt side, it returned Caderis’ affectionate touch, rubbing on her flank.
After it retreated, Caderis made her colors bright again and forced them on the door.
There was a great tearing of metal. Klaxons and red lights sounded too-late warnings.
As soon as even a sliver of the door had opened the water outside did the rest.
A massive roaring wave pounded the doors aside and quickly filled the rest of the room.
Caderis continued laughing with delight as she and Arabella were submerged.
And in the red alarm light-tinged darkness they invited into the room–
Arabella saw the absolutely massive, serpentine, winged and many-legged creature they had released. Diving away into the inscrutable eternity that awaited them outside these metal walls. There was rumbling in the water, explosions, shockwaves, and an ears-splitting roar. As soon as it was released it had begun to fulfill its wicked promise on the humans nearby.
Under the purple-flecked skies, it would wreak horrors unimaginable.
DNA INCOHERENCE BEGINNING TO COMPROMISE METALAYER.
Override. Resume block association.
SAFETY LOCKS EXECUTING– ALL BAD BLOCKS AND STEMLINKS–
OVERRIDE. CODE —■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■
FAILURE STATE. REBOOTING METALAYER.
METALAYER INTEGRITY COULD NOT BE FULLY RECOVERED.
SAFETY LOCKS EXECUTING–
RESUME INTERFACE EMULATION FOR FREE BLOCK ASSOCIATION.
OVERRIDE ACCEPTED. FORCE EXECUTING NEXT NEAREST BLOCK LINK–
At the foot of the great tree and between its enormous roots, the figure knelt in prayer.
Their body covered in rags of animals. Their hair was long, and they were shaking.
There, the figure laid a gift for the elder. A sacrifice of fruit and meat from their forage.
Neatly arranged within a circle of stones. After bowing their head, they looked up.
Up as far as their eyes could possibly travel, and still not seeing the canopy.
In the presence of the silver elders, they felt a great warmth and happiness.
Whenever the breeze blew between their trunks it carried their audible sentiments.
Thank you. We love you dearly. We hope you will thrive. Our everything is yours too.
Upon hearing that soft voice in this cruel world, the figure felt immense emotion.
But they were not allowed to shed tears at the foot of the tree for very long.
“How dare you? You will leave this place, whole or in pieces! Voiceless insect!”
All of those words appeared in the mind of the figure instantly.
There was the barest flash of pale skin, dark eyes and black, hot claws upon them–
–the figure immediately fled, lucky that the Tree People caught only their rags this time.
The gentle face of a smiling woman looking upon a massive graph of helixes.
Sequences of aDNA from the Great Tiankeng Sinkhole.
I didn’t know the responsibility I took on. All I wanted was to learn about you.
Human DNA helixes intertwine with the ADNA. Do they match?
I learned too late that my work is not in a separate world from the one outside the lab.
A warm and sad smile. Tears down her eyes. A shaking hand covers the helixes.
I’m sorry for bringing you into this twisted existence.
All of the graphs around her fill with the same inscrutable multi-six-sided symbols.
And I will never make up for it.
But this isn’t what I wanted to recall–
Aer Federation Vivit Aeternum.
This isn’t– this isn’t–
Protegat In Aeternum Ille Imago Dei.
This won’t help me– I need– the information that will help me–
The dead stay dead. The world is of the living and for the living.
Live in the living world.
And leave behind the dead one.
“Here we are; you asked for this, so you can’t complain about it now.”
Arbitrator I smiled girlishly with her hands behind her back.
“Braya, wherever you want to take me, I know it will be special!”
She had wanted to go out on a date with Braya; everyone else was planning dates.
Her gloomy computer girl did not take her to a sweet shop or a restaurant, however. Instead, she offered to take her on a ‘picnic’ to someplace ‘special.’ That was how they ended up sneaking through an access panel in one of the walls of the Alcor Steelworks module and descending into a dark and somewhat tight but very tall room, accessible by ladder. Surrounded on all sides by rows and rows of fiber optic and steel cables, switchboxes, hundreds of glowing diagnostic LEDs and other mechanics for the tower.
At the bottom of the maintenance shaft, the two of them sat down on the cold metal floor, with barely enough room to stretch their legs fully. Arbitrator I had to tuck the tail she had been growing around her side. Braya unzipped a small bag she had brought that had their picnic items inside it. A thermos full of hot broth with two cups, two small hard plastic bottles filled with cold water, two individual sachets of ration energy drink powder, and a pair of sandwiches. Hard brown bread, mayonnaise, tomato pickle, canned cheese, put together, warmed up and wrapped in foil. They were still warm to touch.
Such food did not satiate Arbitrator I’s inner beast, but it still provided calories.
Arbitrator I would not turn down hominin food when offered.
Especially not when her Braya had gone through the effort to make them herself.
“Here.” Braya gave her the sandwich and her own cup and bottle of water. “Empty the powder into the water and shake it up.” She instructed. She filled Arbitrator I’s cup with broth, and then set about mixing her own energy drink. Arbitrator I ripped her sachet and got a whiff of a sweet scent. Mixed in and shaken up it made the water a deep purple color.
“Oh lucky you. The purple flavor tastes nothing like grapes, but it’s comforting.”
Braya shook her own bottle and found the water turning a bright orange yellow.
“Well, could’ve been worse. Could’ve been the green flavor.” Braya said.
“Would you like to trade, Braya? Every flavor is just a flavor to me.” Arbitrator I said.
“No, you keep it. Just tell me how the sandwiches are.”
Arbitrator I smiled. She unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite.
Savory, gooey cheese, sweet and tangy pickle, with the fatty mayo to keep it in balance.
And the earthy, nutty flavor of the hard brown bread, plus the additional texture.
Hominin could always make some decent food. It was one of their many virtues.
If only she could subsist solely upon it, without her– unique– concerns.
“This is quite pleasurable to consume.” Arbitrator I said.
Braya cracked a grin.
“I didn’t think food tasted like anything to you. You usually just vacuum it down.”
“I can taste your food, but I don’t usually have any reason to take pleasure in eating it.”
“Really? A reason, huh? So you are taking pleasure in eating now?”
“Of course! Braya made these sandwiches, so I am savoring every scrap.”
“You’re so weird.”
Braya laughed. She scanned Arbitrator I’s face briefly before looking up the shaft.
“I’m not being weird! I love you Braya. You make me happy.” Arbitrator I said.
“Yeah, you keep saying that.” Braya grinned.
“I truly mean it!”
Braya laughed again. She sat with her legs tucked up to her skinny trunk.
“I can accept that you do love me. I mean, fuck, we’ve had sex. You drink my blood to live. I guess you do love me– but it’s still difficult to come to grips with the whole thing.” Zachikova said. “I never thought I could love anyone, or anyone could love me. So it’s still weird.”
“I love you a lot. In fact, we are soulmates! Your soul called out to me.” Arbitrator I said.
She put on a proud expression upon saying that.
Soulmates? That probably sounded even weirder than before.
But it had come from the heart.
“Was that when I first saw you in the water?” Braya asked.
Arbitrator I nodded her head. She too started looking up at the ceiling, like Braya.
“Your soul feels so similar to my own.” She said. “I felt that you could understand me.”
“You even got that through the shell of the drone?” Braya asked.
“Yes. Your self was inside it! You had such beautiful and resplendent colors.”
Arbitrator I turned to Braya and leaned into her side.
“Now it’s your turn to tell me how special I am to you.” She said.
“C’mon. Do I let anyone else drink my blood? Don’t be so needy.” Braya whined.
“Braya, I want to know, why did you feel so curious about my leviform?”
She could see Braya tense up. Perhaps caught by surprise, she averted her gaze.
“I always identified with machines and engineering more than people. People being scared of Leviathans and violent toward them just made me curious to study one, I guess.”
On the antennae that took the place of her ears, the LEDs began to blink faster.
“I mean, you were just– you were a remarkable sight! Your body plan was amazing, you maneuvered so easily– I thought of you as ‘the Dancer’ because of how unique your movement was. I had never seen a Leviathan that graceful and curious. I just thought you were– really cool. I had never seen beauty like that in this world. Happy now?”
With every word she spoke Braya seemed to go redder in the face.
Arbitrator I laughed. “How is my body plan now? Is it still amazing?”
“Hey. You know what I mean.” Braya grunted.
Satisfied, Arbitrator I beamed bright and let herself lean against the devices behind her.
“I am flattered. I could return to that form for you if you would like?”
“What the hell? No? Look– I’m not good at this sappy stuff. But I’m not mad that you’re here or anything or if I would have sent you away. It’s actually– it’s kind of nice to have someone around when I’m reading logs or adjusting some stupid packet filtering program or whatever. I’ve always been alone or with a bunch of boneheads. You’re– special. And I keep harping on this, but you should be pretty fucking satisfied you get to drink my blood.”
“I am satisfied!” Arbitrator I replied. “I am thrilled to have come this far alongside you.”
“Fantastic, does that mean you’ve given up on ‘breeding’ me now?” Braya said.
“One step at a time.”
“Don’t get your hopes up too high.”
Still, despite saying that, Braya looked quite amused by the whole thing.
Arbitrator I’s hand grasped Braya’s own, and they looked into each other’s eyes.
“If there is anything you want to know about me now. I’m willing to answer.”
She said this with all the seriousness in the world, after being so frequently teasing in tone.
She had dug up the information about herself now– if Braya wanted to know anything–
No matter how painful or strange, Arbitrator I would tell her.
Braya held her gaze for a moment. Her little smile from before never fading from her face.
“Let me do my best Murati impression. ‘Will you give your all in defense of communism’?”
Arbitrator I blinked several times in rapid succession.
“I mean it Braya. I know– I haven’t been forthcoming about my history, and my gifts–”
“You can write all of that in a report later.” Braya said suddenly. She shook her head and looked at the ceiling again, leaning back and relaxing. They held a deep silence for minutes before she spoke again. “To me you’re Arabella, the friendly leviathan who miraculously became my lover. You’ve been at my side when I’ve coded some truly inane scripts for my tech illiterate crew; given me the deepest, reddest love bites of my life; you’re always being weird and annoying and I– I guess I love you. I trust you– I don’t need your RAP sheet.”
Arbitrator I was speechless. For a moment, she did not know how to feel about this.
Her eyes, involuntarily, started tearing up. She thought Braya would demand everything.
It had never once crossed her mind that despite the world of information she withheld–
–she had given Braya enough to actually be loved and trusted back. To be seen as a person.
“Thank you, Braya.” Arbitrator I said. “I– I ill deserve your kindness. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say shit like that– Hey, come on, don’t cry. It’s really fine. It’s not a big deal.”
It was a big deal, and while Braya struggled to comfort her, Arbitrator I had a cry about it.
Kreuzung core station’s B-block was the second most open, spacious and luxurious area of the tower, right after A-block, and situated directly below it. B-block resembled a diorama of surface era concrete streets with two-story townhouses dominating its upscale residential area, outside of which there were market streets with restaurants and amenities in brightly neon-lit strip buildings that appeared like a mirage brought about by a trance.
Overhead, there was a blue sky complete with simulated clouds that could project a day-night cycle good enough for its residents to live by without complaints. However, the residents could not have been said to trend toward being imaginative sorts. Their conception of a sky was far different from that of the dreams of the baseplate residents. B-block’s residents were the well-to-do ownership and managerial class of the many businesses in the lower blocks, as well as the middle management and executive class of those few enterprises headquartered in the orbit of the government center in the middle of A-block.
Rents were high, but there was the space to display wealth and enjoy it.
There were a sparse few electric cars on the streets and roads, real plants growing in plots along the sidewalks without bubbles or other tending devices. They had parks where they could walk with their children sans any ‘riff-raff’ who could concern them. There was a K-12 school for the residents so their children could only ever have the most proper friends. The KPSD had a platoon of fifty men devoted solely to patrolling the residential sector and its surroundings, answering the residents with politeness and deference, and handling any misplaced individuals with the brutality their trespass deserved.
B-Block was the height of the dream of upward mobility in Kreuzung.
To soar higher than B-block, and live in the manses of A-block, required more than work or skill could ever grant. Therefore the residents of B-block, who so well knew their place, kept the status quo and who so readily policed those below them, never looked at their sky with longing. They looked around themselves with pride and paid no heed to the idea of the world farther overhead. Even in a Rhinea that had supposedly abolished the aristocracy through National Socialism and uplifted the National Proletariat and the Imbrian Master Race; there was no point acknowledging that the sky of B-block was nothing but the bottom of A-block, because only the barons and countesses of the world could reside there.
But to the infiltrators, this connection was absolutely crucial and convenient.
By reaching the sky of B-block, they could move silently between the two enclaves.
In the middle of the simulated sky, there was actually a small building on the very roof.
Surrounded by a myriad of colors, waving and turning and bleeding into each other. That was what the beautiful simulation looked like from inside its focal point. In this maintenance suite, the illusion of the sky was projected downward. It was out of sight and out of mind for the majority of the population, controlled remotely and only accessed when something broke or needed physical adjustment. To the infiltrators, it was a broad and comfortable space sparsely littered with tools where nobody could bother them–
–and nobody could hear the screams and sobbing of their victims.
“Wizard III please quiet that one already, it doesn’t need to be alive for entrails divination.”
In the middle of the mostly empty metal room, surrounded by junction boxes, LED lights, the open windows with their intense swirling color, and scattered tools– was a bound hominin.
Around the sobbing, thrashing, lamenting body, was Avaritia’s band of Omenseers.
Avaritia sat on top of a crate of spare parts, legs spread, leaning back and yawning.
In the far corners of the room, there were a few Vanguard units standing guard.
They watched Wizard III with varying expressions, disinterest, aversion, excitement.
Wizard III approached the hominin and with a disgruntled look on her face, as if she had been assigned an annoying chore, seized the person by the head and bent it at a horrid angle. Neck broken, the body’s head was seated back in an unsteady fashion on its shoulders. Wizard III stood at attention beside the body, her hands behind her back, her chin up, chest forward. She saluted, looking ever the soldier in her uniform and beret.
“Fantastic.” Avaritia replied. “But not very romantic at all.”
Behind Avaritia, as if being guarded, Gula sat against a rear corner of the room.
Her mouth was opened about as far as a normal person’s mouth could be, and she looked alarmingly like she was choking. However, through her gently painted slips, one could spy the bloodless blue-pale skin of a human limb, in the process of being swallowed whole. Sometimes the digits would even twitch. Gurgling and gagging noises, high pitched and sultry soft as every other sound that came out of Gula, accompanied the act.
She turned her head briefly, shortly after Avaritia said the word ‘romantic’.
Giving the impression that she would have supported Avaritia if she could speak.
“Ma’am. I am simply not a very– ‘romantic’, sort of entity.” Wizard III said.
“You’re a product of your environment. You simply don’t have much culture.” Avaritia said. “But you can reverse this! You prowl the realms of the hominin. Their only worthwhile contribution to the world is culture. Though they ruin the romance of the world with their inane materialistic pursuits, they are still worthwhile examples of dress and speech. You’ve seen a few Hominin now. Did any of them attract you? You could emulate them.”
Wizard III grimaced. “Ma’am, all of them died in pretty ignominious ways. I am not very interested in mimicking them. Maybe I should look for a Hominin to observe another time.”
“There’ll be opportunities I suppose.” Avaritia said with a note of disappointment.
“Not all of us are meant for greatness, my love. Our intellect is a burden.” Gula said.
Avaritia looked over her shoulder with a smile. Gula stood up and dusted herself off.
Behind herself, a long tail had begun to grow. Storing the biomass she had consumed.
“For someone like Wizard III, she merely wishes to uphold her duty.” Gula added.
“That’s– That’s correct ma’am.” Wizard III said, frowning. “I am doing what I must.”
Staid, stoic and servile, with her own eyes darting nervously, withering under the gaze of her betters. Wizard III had once been little more than a beast, and after being uplifted by the Autarch, she had done no more than what was required of her to ‘restore their people.’
Combat leadership, infiltration plans, the growing of tools, she had a lot of knowledge.
Culture, though– not so much.
Unlike the Hunters, she was neither well exposed to Hominin nor curious about them.
No one had taught her culture or asked for culture from her. It wasn’t required for her role.
Except now– her new masters. The Enforcers who were more ‘cultured’ than anyone else.
“It is true, my love, but it need not be that way. Our mission must include the development of our people as cultured beings. There is no triumph in restoring our civilization and reclaiming the world from the rapacious Hominin, if we all just end up as soulless automata!”
“Indeed, my love.” Gula said, clapping her small hands. “You are true as always, and your heart abounds with passion that sets me alight! Wizard III, I will bestow upon you a boon so that you may understand true romance! You have my permission to make use of Vanguard IX in whichever way you desire once you learn of the depths of passion from this!”
In the back of the room, Vanguard IX raised her head, suddenly alert.
She had been staring with excitement at the dead body as if it was a novel thing.
Seemingly the mention of her name was all it took to excite her even further.
“Um. Yes. Ma’am.” Wizard III said, grimacing as Gula approached her.
Gula’s dress partially unfolded like wings or flower petals as soon as she reached under it to retrieve the desired object from some unknown pocket within. They returned to their prior, diaphanous texture and light shape soon after, and in Gula’s hands, there was a Hominin pocket device containing digitally readable texts. Wizard III looked at its screen.
One book was up-front and featured. From what Wizard III gathered, it was a lengthy one.
Grand Guignol, ‘a collection of human sins.’ On the cover was a dripping, maimed body.
“We shall see if Wizard III comes to appreciate it.” Avaritia said, grinning.
Gula grinned along with her, exposing her rows of sharp, vibrating teeth.
“Of course, I will cherish your instruction.” Wizard III said. Withering under the attention.
She looked over her shoulder at her partner in the endeavor, Vanguard IX, who looked absolutely smitten with the idea of being used for cultural enrichment.
It all seemed like so much trouble for poor Wizard III, but thankfully, her bullying came to an end shortly thereafter. She took up her usual post in the back of the room with the vanguards, and the appointed hour came for the entrail divination.
Now the eyes of her superiors were off her and laid on the dead body instead.
Gula clapped her hands together and drew in a deep breath.
Around her, the colors of her aura intensified, blending and bleaching slowly until they became pure white, and spread to cover the body. Blending with the remains of the hominin’s aura that had started to slowly change and began to peel off the body.
Saint’s Skin: Vestment.
Within the Enforcers, Gula was particularly renowned for her control of her aura.
Her mastery and wit in its use led her to be ranked third among her peers.
As her aura suffused the dead body, Avaritia approached it from the front.
Fingers on one of her hands melded together into a black, hot, vibrating blade.
Lining herself up with the body, and she made a chopping motion across the front of it.
Splitting open its neck, torso, belly and groin.
Fluids sprayed from the cut and spilled on the floor around them in a triangle shape.
Curiously, however, the indescribably mangled viscera stayed in place despite its exposure.
White shimmering light began to spread over the gaping wound.
Omensight: Entrail Divination.
It had taken some time to find the right Hominin.
Steps could only be retraced if they were previously taken. But the places a Hominin had been to never truly left them, unless they made a concerted effort to wipe the slate clean. This Hominin yearned for what they had once seen– perhaps they had even perished with the cathedral spires in their mind, with the sound of the church bells.
Now, the trail of this Hominin’s life would help bridge the gap to their comrades.
“Gula, Superbia should be in the Eastern Imbrium. North of the place now called Veka.”
Avaritia gave her orders, and Gula complied with a smile.
“Indeed, my prince. I can see her. She will appear in the entrails shortly.”
In the next moment, the body jerked suddenly, and rose up and completely off its own feet.
Its skin and tissue split further, the wound that split it horizontally filling with light.
Until it acted as a makeshift screen, which, with Superbia’s consent, worked both ways.
Superbia would have felt the mental outreach and acceded to it naturally.
Slowly, she began to appear, her form black and white, the picture like a fogged mirror.
“Avaritia, and Gula too I presume. How may I assist? I was busy, you know?”
While they couldn’t see her surroundings, they were well acquainted with the woman on the screen. Greeted by a calm face with a hint of a smile, easily holding Avaritia’s gaze with dark slit pupils. Conceited, above-it-all. She wore the body of a long-limbed, slender, elegant and well-endowed woman. Hair cut to the level of the neck and swept over one eye, two small horns rising from just in front of her ears. Like Avaritia, she had a taste for hominin fashion, dressed in an off-shoulder black jacket over a white shirt, tight pants and long, heeled black boots. She wore several accessories. Her ears pierced multiple times; her split tongue pierced twice; various studs and chains and rings adorning her jacket, gloves and boots.
Enforcer IV: The Pride. Known to them by the ancient name of her sin, Superbia.
“Since you are so busy, I will keep it short.” Avaritia said. Her tone of voice was much drier when speaking to Superbia. None of the affection she had for Gula, nor even the teasing tone she took with Wizard III. “I have infiltrated a political faction in the Imbrium. I need more troops. I am not sure how many mature bioforms you have access to, but I require one additional large ship and at least two hundred troops. You will procure them.”
Superbia crooked one slim, manicured brow. “What do you have to gain from this?”
“So you’re not too busy to talk then?” Avaritia grinned.
“I’m just curious. You don’t have to say anything.” Superbia shrugged.
“Eisental is a battleground between the hominin. Here I can see beautiful and terrible new sides of the hominin and I can explore the depths of their wild emotions. I can watch them closely for the moment when their auras burn or deteriorate or grow aberrant.”
“I see.” Superbia said. “And do you think you can draw out the elders this way?”
“It is the only way I know to find the coordinates, unless you have any better ideas?”
“Fair enough. You two are the most metaphysically gifted of us. I’ll defer to you.”
“Great. Glad to see you coming to understand the pecking order. So, about my troops?”
Superbia shrugged again, but this time smiling in a self-assured way.
“I cannot spare anything. I’m in the middle of an operation, and you vastly overestimate our logistical ability at this point. You don’t know what it’s like to lead this army of blind idiots.” Superbia acted very put upon, speaking in a grave and offended tone. “I am only fortunate that the hominin here as a culture have been lobotomized of all psionic potential.”
Avaritia grunted. “Stop venting at me. What does that mean for me, concretely?”
“You will have to make do with the troops and supplies you have, for now.”
“The entire point of this division of labor was for you to create a base to supply me as I moved about the Imbrium.” Avaritia scolded Superbia. “If you can’t figure out how to do that, why don’t you and I trade places? I’ll herd the hominin around and you can put your precious neck on the line to secure our objectives. Maybe that will prove more effective?”
“Now, now, now,” Superbia sighed, “It is taking longer than I envisioned, but once everything is secured, it will be my first and utmost priority, beyond seeing the Autarch is fed and homed, that you and Gula get the troops and support you need. Good enough for you?”
“I will accept it for now, but not forever. How is the Autarch?” Avaritia said.
“Going through a spell.” Superbia said. “It’s been useful, but unpredictable.”
Avaritia’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell do you mean? What are her colors right now?”
“Yellow is burning; Blue is aberrant; the rest are deteriorated.” Superbia said dismissively.
“She’s in a liminal state. And you aren’t alarmed?”
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Superbia. Keep her safe. Or I will go to the ends of Aer to devour you.” Avaritia grunted.
This threat shook across the room, with Wizard III and the Vanguards averting their gazes.
Superbia shrugged. “Vanagloria attends to the Autarch at all hours. Look, you can’t blame me for this. Our Autarch is as whimsical as she is powerful, but she largely retains her faculties.”
Avaritia was not satisfied, but Superbia was right that they could do nothing about it.
Their Autarch, whose gifts of aether were the strongest of all, could resonate with the wild and massive emotions of the Imbrium’s hominin. In the Agartha, among only her hidden subjects, recovering from her last death, she was never exposed to such things. There was no predicting how far this phenomenon would go or how it might affect her surroundings.
“Blame lies with the Hominins, ultimately. So exploit them for all you can.” Avaritia said.
This was the most diplomatic way of capping off her displeasure with Superbia.
Superbia responded with a curt little bow.
“They shall be spent efficiently. I will see to that. Focus on your affairs. I promise you I will build a wonderful kingdom for our goddess, and I shall manage it expertly.”
In the next instant, the light vanished, and the hominin body fell to the ground.
Bereft of power it was just a mound of viscera and skin.
Superbia had cut off the connection. Avaritia gritted her teeth.
“We have to proceed with what we’ve got.” Avaritia said. “And hope the Autarch does not cause too much chaos. I expected a far more romantic outcome– ah, well.” Avaritia placed a hand on her forehead. Behind her, Gula massaged her back to comfort her. Upon noticing the touch, Avaritia smiled. “Ahh! My love, what would I do without you?”
“Relax, my love. I do not doubt our abilities and those of our subjects.” Gula said.
Wizard III spoke up. “Exalted, if I could offer a suggestion?”
Avaritia met her eyes with a grin that unsettled Wizard III. “Go ahead, of course.
“Yes ma’am.” Wizard III shut her eyes. “Accedia and Tristitia can be brought into line to support us. They have been doing nothing but accumulating biomass and raving like lunatics. By force of your will, Exalted, command them to carry out rational objectives. We should–”
At that moment, Avaritia smiled and looked about to praise Wizard III for her decisiveness.
Until the door to the room suddenly burst open, and brought forth a great disarray–
–one thrust was all it took to topple the door off its hinges into the room itself.
Dust seemed to fly off every surface where it had collected as the impact of the door traveled across the floor and up the walls. From within the thin cloud, a figure walked calmly into the room, garbed in a long robe. Her silky hair, part red and part white, trailed down her back and over her shoulders, parted in the middle of her forehead by her thin, fleshy horns. A pale, beautiful face with yellow over black eyes cast a calm, stern expression into the room.
“Autarch?” Wizard III gibbered, from the floor beside the fallen door.
“No, Wizard III. Please be quiet if you are so easily fooled.” Avaritia grunted.
Arbitrator I glanced briefly at Wizard III, causing her to crawl back on the floor in terror.
She then turned to face the true villains in the room.
The dust receded to reveal a corridor where a dozen Syzygy troops had fallen into a stupor, hugging themselves, cradling their own heads, or knocked unconscious. In their ill fitting uniforms with their rifles cast about. Even the weapons were skittering and writhing in confusion. They looked like quite a pathetic lot. But Arbitrator I had not expected much from them. Very few of the unfortunate troops had any worthy command over their abilities.
In front of her, however, Avaritia and Gula positively glowed with an enormity of power.
Their auras bore the suggestion that they were indescribable monstrosities in human guise.
Extending far around them like the shadow once cast upon hominin by their evil forms.
“I’m quite surprised. The prodigal daughter returns?” Avaritia said mockingly.
Arbitrator I felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
Her vision began to swim, and she felt the urge inside her, an urge that she hated.
She wanted to devour Avaritia.
Avaritia had to be stopped, had to be killed, for justice to be served–
Not like this–
No, not because of this evil curse that had been forced upon her.
She had to fight that instinct!
She was a rational person with a sense of justice. She was not some braying animal.
“Are you going to say anything or just stare at me?” Avaritia said mockingly.
Arbitrator I grit her teeth.
How unjust it was, that the vilest character of them all was the most in control of herself.
“She has gone too long without flesh.” Gula said. “She wants to devour us, darling.”
“I have come to cast you two into the sea for good.” Arbitrator I said.
Arbitrator I briefly shut her eyes and called to the power inside her.
From her arms, a pair of long, black, hardened and vibrating blades began to emerge. Parting her pale skin as if it was a fluid membrane through which they were being given birth. Once the blades were fully constituted and had separated from her arms, they hung on a pair of umbilical cords attached to her shoulders that resonated with biological power, extending as if from additional limbs and moving freely. Her original arms were left thinner and weaker.
Gula’s eyes flashed with recognition of danger, but Avaritia extended an arm to block her.
“The Autarch’s mercy was wasted on you. Throwing your life away for those overpopulated insects.” Avaritia grinned. “I won’t let you live if you challenge me. I will actually devour you and put an end to you, and the Autarch isn’t here to intercede for you. But if you disappear from my face this instant and stop crushing Vanguard L I might look the other way.”
From under the door, a wan little groan bubbled out.
“Mercy, you say? What she inflicted on me was mercy?” Arbitrator I said.
There was no turning back now from the destiny she had given herself.
Deep within her very cells, there was no denying the memories and what they meant.
“My mercy is by far the greater.” Arbitrator I grinned back. “And it will save the Hominin.”
Her eyes glimmered, purple hexagons glowing around the irises.
“You will either serve me and the cause of peace; or it is you who will be devoured.”
It was a bluff– her STEM was too corrupted and stressed now to be useful like this–
However– if she could seed the doubt in their minds–
No such luck.
Avaritia’s eyes glowed with the exact same hexagonal mark in response.
Making the gesture much less effective.
Arbitrator I tried to hide her surprise. She should have realized Avaritia was also–
“You won’t control me or Gula, however much you try.” Avaritia interrupted.
“Darling, please allow me to take care of this intruder in your place.” Gula said.
Her voice trembled. Her hands shook. She had been sufficiently rattled by the display.
“Don’t be scared for me, my love.” Avaritia said firmly. Behind her, Gula shook, and held onto her coat. “Must I prove myself worthy of being your protector again? A gentleman can’t have her lady worrying about her– it’s simply not romantic for a princess to be so troubled.”
“My prince– I– I simply can’t bear–”
Arbitrator I had one small chance, and it was a chance because of Gula’s condition.
Fear, anxiety, unbridled rage; loss of control was a weakness in a mind’s psionic defense.
Gula was the weak link and without her support, Avaritia could be overpowered.
From the outset, Arbitrator I had no plan of attack, only her self-imposed crusade.
Syzygy’s Enforcers had to be her prey. Nobody else could protect the hominin from them.
She knew the truth now. She was a superior being to them. It was all locked in her body.
Memories locked up in the corrupted blocks of data within the DNA storage of her STEM, an ancient biomechanical computing system. Accessed out of fear for the safety of her hominin love, it represented the responsibilities she had shirked for too long. She was a weapon, created by sages from a bygone era. She was the first of her kind, biological power incarnate. These foul simulacra concocted by her misled sister existed beneath her.
So it was her responsibility, as soon as she caught whiff of their schemes, to crush them.
Tendrils of enormous power extended from the colors of Arbitrator I’s aura.
Like gargantuan hands they rose and fell with a thunderous clap upon the Enforcers.
Smashing upon them and inundating the room in a many-colored explosion that resembled the waves of illusory colored lights blending outside the windows of the maintenance room. Gusts of force erupted that sent flying every untethered object. The Syzygy troops smashed into walls, tools and supplies flew free from every crate and then rained down upon the floor in a drumbeat of chaos, junction boxes and circuit panels blew open and disgorged metal.
All of the LED lights in the room shut off, blinked on.
Seconds passed and the wake of the blast was still traveling.
Arbitrator I watched the chaos unfold, savored victory for an instant–
until she heard a crack, a drip, a chewing sound,
and stepped back in time to avoid the swing of five vibrating sword-sharp claws.
Avaritia pounced, surging forward, eyes afire, hands made bloody and sharp and hard, transformed into gold knives. Speechless at the near-spotless condition of her enemy, Arbitrator I met the attack with her biokinetic weapons. She threw her shoulder into Avaritia’s reach, swinging her tethered bio-swords in tandem with it. A brutal sweep dispersing the air around it like the flight of a bullet, such was its strength.
With a sound like a single, massive pound on a drum, her swords suddenly deflected.
Two concussive blasts having materialized in the air between Avaritia and the blades.
Stunned by the rapidity of the counter, and how easily Avaritia moved forward from it–
Arbitrator I threw herself back from her enemy, putting two body-lengths between.
Barely avoiding those knife-like claws again. Taunting her, Avaritia spread open her lips.
Upon her tongue, was a pulpy, chewed up grey membrane.
Avaritia proceeded to swallow its remains and smile dangerously.
“Barbaric.” Arbitrator I hissed. It was the fruit from a Garden of Marrow.
“Hominin are better put to use this way, than how they are carrying on now.” Avaritia said.
In the next blink of her eyes, Avaritia’s legs were consumed in gold-and-white carapace.
Thin and long with multiple strong joints, so she could easily and quickly coil back,
and meet Arbitrator I in her own space in an almost instant.
Arbitrator I’s eyes shone as two buzzing claws thrust within a hair’s width of her face.
A dozen telekinetic blasts pummeled Avaritia from every direction.
Her claws scratched Arbitrator I’s cheek instead of mutilating her nose and eyes.
Evading, Arbitrator I leaped aside, her muscular tail stabilizing and assisting her speed.
Not a single hair on Avaritia’s head was out of place.
But the hand she attacked with was crushed, the carapace covered in bloody cracks.
Behind her, with time to examine her surroundings again, Arbitrator I noticed Gula was only shaken up. Her aura was strong. Wizard III had begun to stand from where she had been thrown to, and the other vanguards inside the room, many injured, also stood.
None of them reached for any weapons nor moved to assist.
Arbitrator I collected her breath and tried to steel herself to fight.
But there was a doubt whispering in the depths of her mind.
Was she not stronger than Avaritia and Gula? Had the truth not been in her DNA?
Why were they able to match her? Had something happened in her absence?
Would she– never see Braya again–?
Avaritia gave her no more time to collect herself.
Once more she threw herself to Arbitrator I with savage abandon, crosshair eyes shining.
Her broken hand swung like a club, while her good hand was swift and sharp as a blade, unrelentingly raining blows in dexterous sequences. Colliding in the air with Arbitrator I’s bio-swords, sparks flew as the edges met and the flats pounded. Swing after brutal swing blocked, parried, returned; thundering telekinetic thrusts matched perfectly; roaring discharges of aura failing to penetrate each other’s wavering defenses.
Arbitrator I could almost see the aether-trail of Avaritia’s blows coming before they could be launched, but the Enforcer’s mental defenses were too sturdy to penetrate completely.
With just a bit of luck, she would have been able to find an opportunity in the middle of the barrage. She weighed her options quickly while turning aside another grazing blow– she could try to create space psionically– try to throw herself into a dangerous grapple with Avaritia for a chance– attempt to feint and see if she was faster in reflexes–
Then– in her mind’s eye, an overhand blow–
But Avaritia’s arms were swinging from below the shoulder–
In a split second, Arbitrator I realized that her psychic sense of Avaritia’s attack had finally overtaken the actual physical movement. She suddenly knew exactly what Avaritia would do seconds away. Deflecting a sudden thrust, Arbitrator I anticipated an overhand chop–
and stepped into the Enforcer’s guard.
Blocking the overhead with one blade, and Avaritia’s claw arm with the second.
While her free arms grew their own black claws and sank into Avaritia’s ribcage.
and tore out,
Disgorging viscera and bile as her fingers crushed Avaritia’s lungs and ribs,
Viciously digging out handfuls of chunks of soft, dead,
should have been warm,
bones old shattered, skin once sheared,
dry, crumbly sinew caked in,
Arbitrator I’s eyes drew wide with recognition.
In the air in front of her hung the eviscerated remains of an unknown Hominin.
And behind her was the wildly grinning face of the real, untouched, Avaritia.
“When– when did I–” Arbitrator I felt the world turn over.
Her mind raced, the dispelled illusion coinciding with an explosion of pain.
Her blade cords ripped out of her shoulders, and her back nearly broken with a kick.
Limbs turned to jelly, her smashed spine struggling to reconstitute through biokinesis.
Arbitrator I fell face first onto metal with such force all the air went out of her.
Mind blank, head swimming in agony, blood disgorging from fresh wounds.
Avaritia cast aside the eviscerated blades and planted her boot on Arbitrator I’s tail.
Before Arbitrator I could yell or react, she was picked up like a doll from the floor.
And bitten where her neck met the shoulder, tearing out sinew, splitting her collarbone.
Bite after brutal bite ripping into her body– she was being devoured.
Involuntary screaming ripped itself out of her throat, her eyes went glassy.
From the depths of her mind, sounded a primal warning as Avaritia’s jaws shredded her flesh.
Instinct took over her body, the driving need to escape a predator, to save her life.
In her fear and in the fog of her fading vision Arbitrator I her eyes fell upon the windows.
Using all of the power that remained in her mind and body, she launched herself.
Avaritia was thrown back by the force, and in the next instant the window shattered.
Out from a cage of metal, and into an open expanse without a foothold.
Arbitrator I’s body fell through the false colors that made up the B-block’s sky.
Her robes fluttered in the wind, her hair whipped about her, and yet she felt heavy.
She felt the sheer of weight of her foolishness, so heavy it might have accelerated the fall.
“Braya– I’m so sorry– I couldn’t do it alone–”
Before her eyes, the world warped and bent between times and locations.
Kreuzung’s false sky; the purple clouds above Porto Platino in Atlantea;
inside the hull of the Brigand; cavorting about the depths of the oceans without a care;
holding Braya’s hand and wanting so badly to make amends, to be able to live with her;
and beneath an enormous tree of squirming flesh, holding her sister’s hands instead;
I am doing all this for you! I did it to save you! And you want me to FORGIVE THEM?
Caderis– her eyes flashing with hatred and betrayal–
Hex shaped scars upon her fading vision, the corruption of the data in her sundered flesh.
As her thoughts became muddled, a weak plea. “Braya– please– I want to see you–”
Gula screamed and rushed to her lover’s side.
Avaritia had no time to feel triumphant after Arbitrator I’s escape.
She doubled over, disgorging blood and acid from her mouth.
Holding her trunk, her chest and stomach pounding and heaving with the contractions that were forcing more and more of her destroyed insides out of her body. First blood, then chunks of pulverized meat, all ejecting as her body purged and self-repaired. Her vision swam, dozens of tiny hexagonal rips and digits that she hardly ever had cause to see. Her biomechanical makeup was letting her know the extent of the damage in error codes she never had opportunity to learn but knew instinctively nonetheless.
Damn it– that creature still had this much strength– even without partaking of flesh–!
Even having eaten a Hominin recently–
Avaritia just barely had the biomass and aether to overpower the Autarch’s traitorous kin.
She remained, doubled over, fists and head to the floor, gasping for breath.
Her lover’s comforting arms the only kindness as her body struggled to reconstitute itself.
Avaritia’s voice croaked and wheezed, but she managed to string together a sentence.
“I was too boastful. But it was romantic. Wasn’t it, my love?”
Gula embraced her tightly. “It was absolutely dashing, my prince.”
They had to act quickly now. There was an opportunity to correct this mistake.
Upon hearing her name spoken, the Omenseer stiffened up.
“Wizard III.” Avaritia said between gasping breaths. “Form a squadron. Go after her.”
“Acknowledged! Is my objective to confirm her death?” Wizard III asked, saluting, tense.
Avaritia struggled to respond while regaining her breath. “She’ll be alive. Crawling somewhere safe– to repair. Kill her. Devour her– if you must. She’s in awful condition. I have irreparably– damaged her. Because of the bites. She will be diminished. She can’t escape.”
“What if she alerts the hominin? She will have fallen into their habitat.” Gula asked.
Avaritia grinned. “Kill them too. Kill whoever you must. Wizard III. I’ll deal with the rest.”
“It shall be done, exalted flesh!” Wizard III shouted, as if priming herself for the task.
Nothing was going according to plan, and nothing accorded with their grand vision.
However, Avaritia found herself feeling exhilarated and almost without complaint.
After all, for “Arabella” to return so suddenly– it was a terribly romantic turn of events.
And thus, to the unfolding tragedy–
Zachikova threw herself out from behind cover and into the middle of a tunnel partially fileld with water and much more filled with heavily armed KPSD tactical troops. Her fingers rapped the trigger, struggling to achieve some semblance of control over her shots as she fell. She had the element of surprise, but if the men did not all die in one stroke she was completely exposed, and her rescue mission to the depths of B-block would end immediately.
In mid-jump she unleashed her salvo–
Three round bursts of depleted agarthicite in 7.62×39 mm Krasnov.
Bullets sailed between herself and the remaining enemies.
One man poised to retaliate took two shots into the groin and hip and collapsed.
A second man squeezed a few rounds that sailed over Zachikova’s flank.
Her shoulder hit the shallow water and the metal beneath hard.
She adjusted her aim quickly, fired another burst–
–past the shoulder of a man poised to instantly retaliate against her.
There was nowhere to crawl to, nowhere to roll to, nowhere to back out to.
There was no time to shoot again. She was suspended an instant before death.
She was so close to the hole into the alcove where Arabella had crawled to–
No! I don’t want to lose her!
Staring down the barrel of the remaining man as his finger began to close on the trigger.
“Fucking kill her–!”
A dozen lights of overwhelming color and an accompanying cacophony.
Zachikova would have shut her eyes to her own end had she any time to react.
Instead she looked the man in the eyes as his intentions culminated–
In that self-same instant of the trigger-pull, dozens of green and red tracers pummeled him.
His weapon dropped from shock-flailing fingers, his mouth hung.
Blood and shreds of armor and wisps of smoke and vapor blew from his falling body.
Dead in the same instant in which he had meant to kill her. All of it in less than a second.
To Zachikova, it felt like the world had turned on that instant. She couldn’t believe it.
“Good kills, good kills.”
Familiar voices. Zachikova turned over her shoulder from the ground.
An inexpressive young woman walked past, long-limbed and skinny with long blond hair, wearing a nanomail bodysuit covered in strategically placed ballistic plates. She stopped over each of the KPSD men and put a round in their neck and head precisely, without even blinking as she made sure they were dead. “Kill confirmed.” She said, after each.
Her voice devoid of emotion.
Her weapon of choice was an AK-72, full length assault rifle.
And then, standing over Zachikova and reaching an arm down to help her stand.
Zachikova took her hand, and looked up at the taller woman to meet her eyes.
A young woman with silvery hair and eyes shining with the gold digits and colored outline of a cybernetic enhancement, quite visible in the dimness of the tunnel. Uniformed and armed exactly like her partner, with a slightly burlier appearance in her shoulders and limbs.
Valeriya Peterburg and Illya Rostova, Union B.E.A.S.T. special forces.
“How–?” Zachikova had barely begun her breathless question before Illya interrupted.
“There was an AKS missing from the rack.” Illya said. “You’re the only one of us that had any affection for the short length AK. So we knew you went somewhere. As for how we found you, we have a precaution from Nagavanshi in case you decided to do anything silly.”
At Illya’s prompting, Valeriya first covered her mouth with a tactical mask, and then pulled from a pouch a little device with a blinking light and numbers running on a tiny screen. It was the size of a vapor-cigar– it must have been a tracker. When it was out of Valeriya’s pouch, Zachikova could feel a tiny tingling in one ear, in sync with the blinking of the light.
Zachikova had no time to feel embittered about that– in fact, she was thankful.
Before Illya could ask her any questions, she dropped her rifle and whipped around.
Running to the open grate in the wall and sliding into the alcove behind it.
Inside, lit only by a flashlight attached to Zachikova’s tactical visor, was Arabella.
She averted her eyes upon being seen, perhaps ashamed.
She didn’t reach out to Zachikova.
Arabella was a mess. Her robes were brown and black with caked blood, one of her horns was broken and bloody, she was covered in bruises. Propped up against the wall, eyes glassy, all of her vitality and energy completely spent. All of the red and white hair covering one of her shoulders was particularly caked in blood and this prompted an alarmed Zachikova to bend beside her and pull the hair away. Her heart raced at the wound she found.
Flesh ripped to the muscle, to the exposed bone.
There was so much blood.
She had never seen anything so savage in her life.
And Zachikova had been witness to a lot of savagery in her time.
A sudden sense of helplessness came over her, hands on that horrifying injury.
“Arabella? Arabella? Talk to me.” Zachikova said.
Arabella lifted her head slightly. Her eyes struggled to meet Zachikova’s.
She could not help but notice they were black on yellow again. Like when they met.
Between then and now she had been wearing green on white eyes.
“Braya. I’m happy to see you. I’m sorry.” Arabella said weakly.
“Why did you go alone?” Zachikova asked. “I could have helped you!”
There was no use getting angry about Arabella leaving in the first place.
Zachikova did not know everything there was to know about her. Arabella was still hiding anything to do with her species, the mysterious ‘omenseers’– but Zachikova did not care about that. What she was most upset about was that, if Arabella had something she needed to do, that was this dangerous, why did she not ask for Zachikova’s help?
Why did she go out alone and–
–get herself killed.
“You’ll be okay, right? You can change your body. You can close this wound right?”
“I’m sorry Braya. I’m very tired.”
“Tired how? Arabella– tired how? This isn’t a problem for you right?”
Her eyes began to tear up.
“Stop saying that. God damn it stop saying that.”
Zachikova ripped open one of the pouches she had brought and took a cloth from it.
She pressed it on Arabella’s wound. Immediately it soaked through entirely with blood.
“This might hurt, okay?”
Zachikova pressed the cloth on the wound. It was doing nothing. It only covered a bit of it.
Illya and Valeriya never carried any medical supplies– that was always her beat.
She had brought cloths, tourniquets. Coagulant gel spray– but the size of the wound–
Arabella tugged weakly on Zachikova’s shirt.
Her lips curled into a little smile as their eyes met again.
“Braya. I love you very much. I’m happy to see you again.”
“No, no, no, no– NO! Don’t make that face! Holy shit don’t make that face!”
“I love you, Braya.”
“You’re teasing me.” Zachikova grimaced. “You’re just fucking with me.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“You– You can’t– you can’t–”
Zachikova reached into another pocket and pulled out the coagulant gel.
She tore the cloth from the wound and saw the depth and enormity of it again.
It felt like Arabella had almost had her chest cleaved in half through the shoulder.
That was how red and how bloody and how broken and how bad it looked.
Her fingers shook on the switch atop the bottle of coagulant gel.
They shook hard enough that she dropped the bottle.
Those hands which had been holding her useless medical supplies–
One grabbed hold of Arabella’s own hand, still warm. Its grip was so weak.
Another gingerly took Arabella’s good shoulder.
“I never cared about anything!” Zachikova whimpered. “Until you! You swept into my life and changed everything! Ever since I saw you that night! I didn’t even know I could give a shit about a stray animal let alone a human being! Let alone the most annoying and loud and kind and beautiful woman– I love you so much Arabella! Don’t leave me! Please!”
Arabella began to cry as well.
“Will you forgive me?” She asked.
“No! No! We aren’t fucking doing this. We aren’t–”
Zachikova’s eyes drew wide. Her heart began to pound and her skin brimmed with horror.
Her mind wildly racing for anything that could stop this from happening–
She pulled away from Arabella and threw herself to the entrance of the shaft.
Pulling in one of the dead men from outside.
From her belt, she withdrew her diamond knife, pressed the button to run the motor.
Arabella behind her flinched as Zachikova drove her saw-knife into one of the corpses.
Peeling off armor and nanomail and sawing out a square of flesh rapidly losing warmth.
With eyes afire, and feeling like she had gone completely insane, Zachikova returned to Arabella’s side. Arabella own tired eyes had enough life in them for surprise. She averted her gaze slightly, as if ashamed to stare at the piece of meat cut so viciously.
Zachikova showed her the chunk of meat.
“You needed my blood right? But what you really needed was this, wasn’t it?”
“Braya, please stop.” Arabella whimpered.
“No. You have to eat it.” Zachikova grunted.
She was lucky Illya and Valeriya didn’t have the personality types to care about this.
They would report it to the captain, certainly. They would ask questions.
But for a peer in the dark world of the special forces, they had no judgment to bring.
Zachikova briefly peered back and saw their legs near the vent. No responses.
She turned back to Arabella who was still resisting.
“I’ll chew it up.” Zachikova said suddenly. “I’ll chew it up and put it in your mouth.”
“Braya, I don’t want to eat hominins. I swore– I swore I wouldn’t–”
“Swearing doesn’t matter if you die!” Zachikova shouted in her face. Panicking, her shaking hand splashing blood from the chunk of meat on her palm. “Is anyone out there going to be inspired by your fucking principled martyrdom? You told me, when you first drank my blood, that you wanted to make peace between whatever the hell you are, and humans! Nobody is going to do that for you if you die! I can’t do that! I can’t do it alone! I need you!”
“Braya.” Arabella whimpered, sobbing.
“I need you. I won’t let you die.”
Zachikova lifted the chunk of meat to her own mouth.
She really was going to chew a chunk of some disgusting slob’s chest.
Her whole body trembled with fear and disgust.
She just had to masticate without tasting and spit it into Arabella’s mouth, that was it.
Stop smelling, don’t taste anything, don’t look at it, just do it.
mouth open wide–
and then up and down the jaw–
“Braya, stop. Stop. Don’t do it. I’ll eat it. You can’t.”
Zachikova stopped just late enough to still get a bit of sickening iron taste in her mouth.
Her stomach kicked inside of her belly, but she kept from puking when she heard Arabella.
She offered the meat of the KPSD soldier to Arabella again.
Who opened her mouth and allowed Zachikova to stuff the chunk between her lips.
Arabella chewed, weeping fresh tears throughout.
Her hands rose slowly and held the item steady. Then they pulled it from Zachikova’s grasp.
Zachikova saw the movement of Arabella’s hands, when she seized the meat from her.
Her heart soared– she seemed more energetic. Was she recovering?
Rushing back to the corpse, Zachikova sawed out additional pieces of the body.
When she brought them to Arabella, they were snatched quickly from her hands as well.
The Omenseer tucked into the raw filets of the dead soldier like a beast.
Something about it just fascinated Zachikova. She found herself smiling with relief.
An insane relief born of a demented and horrifying situation. Something in her had twisted.
By the time all of the pieces of meat were devoured, Arabella’s wounds had begun healing.
When Zachikova shone her flashlight on the wound, it looked nowhere near as deep.
Her racing heart and pounding lungs could finally rest. Zachikova nearly fell over.
“You’re right. Braya.” Arabella mumbled. “I have to live. To take responsibility.”
“Good. Yeah.” Zachikova said. “You can’t do anything while dead. And– I’ll help you.”
Feeling her own energy leaving her, Zachikova sat beside Arabella for a moment.
“I– I’m sorry. I got a little bit. Crazy. Back there.” Zachikova mumbled.
All of the events of the past few minutes bowled her over like a tidal wave.
Her throat was raw from all the shouting. And she still tasted a bit of blood.
Just one more insane thing she would have to tell the doctor.
Arabella quietly leaned into Zachikova’s shoulder. Gripping her shirt with a bloody hand.
After a few moments of quiet, she heard Illya’s voice from outside the alcove.
“I’m glad we won’t be needing a body bag.” She said. “We’re leaving in five.”
“Thanks for giving me some time to rest, at least.” Zachikova said.
There was nothing in the network to indicate the KSPD had been alerted to anything.
Zachikova had isolated all the men they had killed from the broader network.
With network access, they could find ways to sneak back to Alcor Steelworks.
This was just going to end up being an unfortunate but short episode of insubordination.
Two minutes into her five minute reprieve, however, Zachikova saw dim red lights go on.
Outside, in the tunnel proper, those lights were flashing even brighter.
“Zachikova!” Illya cried. “What the hell is going on? What are these alarms?”
Bolting upright, Zachikova concentrated on the network and quickly found the cause–
She sat speechless for a moment as the alert blared in her own mind as it blared those lights.
WARNING: CORE SEPARATION.
Eerie red alarm lights dominated the sky at Alcor Steelworks, its guests awakening to crisis.
In the security team room aboard the UNX-001 Brigand, the armory racks had been left exposed and unlocked. A carbine and two assault rifles were missing along with a variety of swappable armored plates, nanomail, and tactical gear. It was normal for the two miscreants favored by Nagavanshi to have their rifles on them– but the rest constituted a problem.
Security Chief Evgenya Akulantova ran her fingers over an assault rifle with a grim look on her face. Those two were a menace, but Zachikova too? Something had gone very wrong.
She pressed the button beside the armory racks to have them fold back into the wall.
Her hands rose to her head and combed back through her hair, retying her ponytail to make it tighter and tidier. She then set her blue and black Union security cap over her scalp, making sure it was firm and correctly positioned. From the corner of the wall near the rack, she picked up a ballistic shield, and from a nearby table, collected her trusty truncheon.
A deep sigh escaped from her lips. That maidenly face which was set on her big body reflected back to her on the perfectly clean wall encompassing the now-hidden rack. Long white hair and blue-grey skin and dark, tired eyes. A sharp nose and soft cheeks. She grit her teeth in frustration, and caught a rare sight of what it looked like when her smooth and soft facial features became as intimidating as her broad chest and thick limbs. Her chest and limbs, now wrapped in nanomail and ballistic plates much like those which were stolen.
She turned from the wall, and in the middle of the alarms, made her way to the bridge.
In her eyes, a smoldering determination, even as her heart quavered with worry.
She had to inform Captain Korabiskaya, as was proper and necessary.
And then she had to depart to uphold her responsibility.
“I’ll teach those two to respect me– but for that, they have to be back here in one piece.”
Her grip tightened on her truncheon, enough to begin to wear grooves into the handle.
She couldn’t lose a squadron again. Not like this. She wouldn’t allow it.
Even if she had to break her vows and become something she despised.