This chapter contains a torture sequence with a brief moment of heightened violence.
In the context of a station, the overarching structure providing power was referred to as a Core Pylon. To further understand the Pylon, its layout could be broken down into a massive superstructure housing two critical pieces of machinery: the reactor core ring and the agarthic energy array. Agarthicite “fuel rods” were contained in the energy array with complex Osmium shields. This array was submerged within the reactor core as part of normal operation and cooling. Energy was generated in several synergistic ways.
Agarthicite as a material boasted surreal properties that were observed but understood only in a very shallow fashion in the After Descent era. Most visibly, it was known that any solid matter that agitated Agarthicite too much would be annihilated entirely by a fatal discharge from the crystal. This property was not witnessed in particulate agarthicite known as “agarthic salt” but only in cubiform agarthicite “ore.”
No form of Agarthicite “annihilated” water or gas, but it was known that in annihilation of human bodies, the water would be vaporized by the heat of the reaction. Therefore, controlled annihilation of carbons submerged in water could generate heat. While any type of solid matter could be annihilated, Carbon was common, easier to process, and its reaction was well understood. Any material could suffice, however.
Osmium was the great exception. It was the only known case of a material being antagonistic to Agarthicite, both resisting annihilation and even reducing the scope of the reaction and thus allowing some control over annihilations by subjecting the reacting agarthicite to the presence of Osmium.
Osmium tools and devices could be used to mine, shape and manipulate Agarthicite– very carefully.
An eerie and less understood property was that Agarthicite would rotate in bizarre patterns when subject to controlled electrical and magnetic charges and would generate more kinetic energy than was spent agitating them. It was this property that resulted in collapsed ship reactors physically twisting the matter of the ship before annihilating it. Thus, when the energy array was physically hooked into the core ring, the array was also connected to motors that generated additional power by allowing the array to spin in the water. This generated enough power for the operations of the Core Pylon to self-sustain.
Agarthicite could become “spent.” Spent agarthicite would lose its otherworldly purple sheen and become dull and ductile, able to be spun into alloys. In this decayed state, Agarthicite was extremely useful as a metal. Together with Osmium, it was found in all kinds of technology in the After Descent era. For example, decaying Agarthicite alloys led to the electric oscillators used in monomolecular vibroblades.
Both the eldritch rotation and the heat generation could create significant usable energy.
Reactor cores, known as “Core Rings,” were designed both to house and stabilize the energy array and to employ its eldritch properties in the generation of energy. Agarthicite reactors could power the generation of their own magnetic and electrical charges while also generating enough surplus energy to power the massive stations housing underwater inhabitants. Station reactors built in 979 A.D. would be expected to run for multiple decades before needing a replacement Energy Array. Some reactors had been running since the Age of Strife and nobody had touched their Arrays since then. It was unknown by what process their ancient agarthicite was refined to such a degree as to permanently sustain reactions.
Ultimately, very little was understood, truly understood, about Agarthicite. It was only observed.
There were people who believed Agarthicite held powers beyond the mortal ability to “observe” and “deduce.” Agarthicite study was referred to as “pseudophysics.” It had both the academic social credibility of a science and the raving mad reverence of a religion. Most “normal” people beheld Agarthicite this way, no matter how much philosophers and theoretical scientists tried to dispel its myth through logic.
To the people of the After Descent Civilization, Agarthicite reactors and the Stations they lived in had an unspoken near-sacred status. Agarthicite was the true, material God of Imbria and Cogita both, a God capable of both sustaining and destroying life. It was unthinkable to tinker with these systems, innovation in the field of Core Pylons and their constituent parts was glacial wherever it was not outright outlawed. It was known that Agarthicite powered the collapsed Surface Civilization also– but the history of the Reactors for the After Descent civilization began after the Age of Strife with the first reactors created wholly underwater, their designs drawn from studying the Origin Core Pylons of the first stations.
However, it was for this reason that a fleet of Cogitan men and women could convince themselves to attack the Core Pylon of an Imbrian station. Agarthicite was their God, but this was not their land. Imbrians were lesser people, barbarous, evil, enemies of all that was right. Cogitan racism allowed them to see the Imbrians, their stations, and their Core Pylon, as violable, or even worthy of violation.
Their God wasn’t our God. Just as they were the lesser. Anything could be done to them.
Homa left some lonac in the pot in case Leija wanted to eat before she left.
It was simple food, but then again, pulao rice was her favorite meal. She might like it.
After cursing Radu and Imani, Leija said nothing more and finally fell asleep. Since then, she had been resting peacefully on Homa’s bed. Homa had eaten, showered, and laid down on the floor to play with her phone. Leija’s words joined the massive amount of things troubling her during these dark days in which she lived. She had no reason to disbelieve what Leija said: Radu had come to visit her. Since then, she had felt apologetic toward Homa but kept it close to the chest. Did Radu visiting come before or after Imani approached Leija, trying to get connected to a Shimii helper at a dockyard for her schemes?
She mentioned both of them. Why? Why would they be connected in her drunk head?
Could it be that Radu the Marzban was helping Imani? One of the Volkisch Movement?
Imani was a Shimii– but it still made no sense to her that Radu would help her.
Homa was not an authority of what the Marzban’s agenda was.
But he was a wanderer, who lived by his own justice and hid his face from the public.
Could a bandit like that really have ties to a person like Imani Hadžić?
This was something she couldn’t reason out by herself in her room. That was the most frustrating thing– talking to herself about Radu was like ruminating on the agendas of angels or djinn. There was no way to find him, there was no way to even prove his existence anywhere outside the vessel of her own memories. She couldn’t influence him. But she still worried! She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Because if Radu was helping Imani, the world was a little bit bleaker than she thought.
Heroes and villains would make even less sense than ever before.
She had been sure that Radu was supposed to be a hero. And Imani Hadžić was a villain.
Now, even in the fantasy that supported her life, such things began to lose their meaning.
And it bothered her– because she viewed herself as someone connected to Radu.
Even if they had not seen each other in years.
She couldn’t help it. She was not connected to very many other people.
It was just him and Leija.
If you had no one, no blood– then kin were the people who occupied one’s memories.
Shimii valued kin above all else– and maybe Homa valued Leija and him as kin.
Despite everything they had done–
Homa grit her teeth. Her emotions were so twisted up. It hurt, deep in her chest and brain.
“Maybe when Leija feels better I’ll ask her about it.” Homa said.
Her hands reflexively stroked the necklace, fingers rubbing on the rough bit of silica.
Staring up at the steel ceiling in the dark. Leija’s light snoring the only sound.
Homa stroked the necklace, slowly drifting off, the fog of sleep slowly seeping in.
She shut her eyes and saw the colored lights bouncing behind her eyelids.
Her mind went dark, her body falling gently.
To a world of great open skies, conquered by the crowns of massive trees.
Iridescent foliage casting many-colored shadows the world beneath.
Great silver-white trunks stretched down from heaven to thick, jagged roots prism-purple.
Over soft blue dirt, she sat, her back nestled against the monumental body.
A breeze swept by billowing red algae and weepy fungi and stirred the muddy puddles.
As far as she could see to the horizon and beyond, from the ground to the heaven, it was all the trunks of trees, their crowns making up the sky, their branches making up the clouds and below them the canopy of the forest, low alginic shrubbery under and around their roots, liquid dribbling down their trunks forming channels like erosion on mountainsides, and she was alone, and her mind was mile a minute and slug-like slow– and she felt greatly at peace. Amid whispering families of trees all connected among whom the colors traveled expressing pale blue and white.
Then, amid the trees–
A pale traveler, red-haired with a black horn, white robe and tail dragging on the mud.
Looking over her shoulder, her yellow amid black eyes dilating with hatred as she saw.
Between the sonorously singing trees the colors around her became painted a deep black.
WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?
Colors became tendrils that rushed toward Homa with murderous slashing violence–
Homa opened her eyes. A tiny sliver of yellow light from the hall shone in her face.
She was on the floor. A metal floor in a metal place.
Holding herself, curling up in her bed. For a moment she was in the grip of something.
A vast forest; whispering trees; the surface? She had dreamed of the surface?
As the scriptures read. A surface with a vast sky and dry ground and breathable air.
There was a monster too. It was a nightmare. Fear shook its way through her body.
It took a few minutes for her wits to fully return to her. For her to realize and admit that it was only a dream and could not hurt her. But she felt something primal before that– a need to make herself small and hidden as if some enormous presence was watching her closely. Was this how ‘mice’ once felt about ‘cats’? She knew both animals and had heard this metaphor used in educational contexts.
But such depredation no longer had many places where it could happen.
Except perhaps in dreams. Dreams, like ancestral visions of what humanity had lost.
“Ugh. What kind of stupid shit is that, Homa Baumann?”
Homa chided herself for her weakness and childishness.
Anxiety must have been getting the better of her. Her mind must have been in shambles.
No wonder she had no control over her life when dreams affected her so strongly.
Gritting her teeth, she finally made herself get up and face reality again.
It was early in the morning.
Homa reached for the wall, turned on a dim light in order to see.
Leija was still asleep. Homa was almost worried, but she was breathing regularly.
Her face was eerily peaceful. Her makeup had run just a bit, lipstick lightly streaked, eyeshadow lightly smeared. Slight lines of aging showed around her eyes and at the edges of her mouth as she rested, more visible than ever, but Leija looked so content, Homa thought she looked more beautiful than ever. When she saw her at peace like this, Homa could overcome that staggering tension she otherwise felt in her presence. There were no glaring eyes and scowling lips, no striking claws. Her prone body, escaped from the world of violence from where she came and imbued with the gentleness of sleep– Homa felt a sudden heart-shudder of sympathy for her.
“I hope you’ll be okay in here.” Homa said.
It didn’t feel right.
Some part of Homa wanted to take care of Leija, but she had no choice.
She would have to go to work and leave Leija behind.
Homa sighed to herself.
Majida had said, there was no place where Shimii could have a storybook life.
Thinking about it, Homa finally put together what she wanted to say–
“I can’t forgive you for everything. I am not the only person you hurt. You hurt people every day in so many ways I can’t even describe. But I still– I do still love you, Leija. Because I know it’s this place, and the way that being here warps people– if we’d lived anywhere else, if we’d lived peacefully, maybe you could have been good to me. You wouldn’t have neglected me– and I wouldn’t have to resent you.”
In her sleep, Leija’s eyes shut a little harder, the fingers on her hands closed and opened.
This wasn’t any kind of closure, nor was it the culmination of anything significant.
It wasn’t a big moment– just Homa coping to herself, functionally alone, in her room.
That’s all it could be and that was all she could do. But she still felt like she had to say it.
Maybe it could serve as a rehearsal for when Leija woke up and they had to confront this.
Homa dressed herself, ate a bit of lonac in a cup and left for work.
Her head felt a bit heavy and foggy. As if she was fighting back tears the whole time.
She expected her day to go by as mindlessly as ever. She hoped for it to be so. She hoped for a day she could run on autopilot. Home, to the checkpoint, to the tram, to the pavilion, to B.S.W. and back home again. Once she got back home in the afternoon, she would have to deal with what happened with Leija, but the rest of the day should have been exactly the same as always.
Two elevators down to her little lost corner of the world, Bertrand Shore Works.
On the corridor leading to the semi-circular bulkhead into B.S.W, a blond woman awaited her. Wearing a grandiose coat over a ruffled red shirt and a long, tight black pencil skirt and ribbed tights. She smiled and waved in front of the closed bulkhead into B.S.W. Kitty McRoosevelt could not let herself in– Homa had been leaving the bulkhead unlocked for her after she came in, since Kitty was supposed to come later in the day, after Homa already clocked in. This was part of the instructions Bertrand gave clients, so they wouldn’t waste their time while the employees set up. Only employees could work the doors.
“As-Salamu Alaykum!” Kitty said cheerfully.
“You don’t have to do it in Fusha.” Homa said. She sighed internally.
This woman–! Homa had been saying that about a lot of people lately…
“Usually the bulkhead door is unlocked when I come in.” Kitty said.
“Yeah, that’s me who does that. Only employees can open stuff here, so you have to wait.”
Homa walked past Kitty and held her keycards to the door’s reader. After the keycard swipe, she stepped in front of the card reader’s touchscreen for camera authentication. There was a metallic rolling sound shortly thereafter– the Bulkhead door unlocked and could open now.
“Ahh, I see.” Kitty replied. “It has a camera, too? That’s a lot of security.”
“It’s like I told you, only an employee can open it. So don’t come here early.” Homa said.
She walked through the bulkhead door, automatically opened, and thought nothing of this.
Kitty stood off to the side and watched while Homa put on her gloves, mask, goggles and put protective sleeves over her tail and ears and returned to work on her yacht. She had stripped, repainted, and detailed the exterior, so now she had to recoat it with poison and waterproof gel. She big Kitty stand farther back than she had been the past few days and got to work as usual.
Though she was here way too early with nothing to do, Kitty had no complaints.
In fact, the blond hardly spoke to Homa at all that day.
She would have said ‘suit yourself’ to that, but Imani was counting on her.
So she tried to poke Kitty and see if there would be anything to report to Imani today.
“So, any big plans for the yacht?” Homa asked Kitty.
It was as if she was turning the tables on Homa now. She had become the terse one.
“How has your stay in Kreuzung been so far?”
“Been to any neat places?”
Homa felt so stupid shouting small talk over the sound of her spray gun.
Especially when she got back next to nothing.
What was going on?
“To hell with her then.” Homa sighed. There was always tomorrow.
If Kitty was grumpy today it didn’t matter at all.
Homa hardly knew what use Imani was getting out of her information anyway.
As the afternoon went on, she focused on her work and did not bother with Kitty.
And Kitty seemed quite content to just stand around in silence this time.
It irritated Homa just a bit– what a stupid turn from how chummy she was earlier!
By the end of the day, she had wandered off out of the dockyard altogether.
Homa clocked out and put it out of her mind. She had to worry about Leija and about whether there to try her luck at the shops again today. She might try to buy something for Leija in the Imbrian shops– if the dynamic pricing wasn’t too bad, a gift might help the Madame’s mood. Perhaps a cake or a sweet?
She put away her tools and walked out of B.S.W, through the bulkhead door and then up the old cargo ramp to the elevator. She tuned out her surroundings, just like she wanted to do. Her auto-pilot took her step by step, steps farther from B.S.W. and steps closer to home, mindlessly. Looking down at the grimy green steel floor of the ramp as she climbed the makeshift steps down the side of it up to the elevator shaft, she wondered how she would approach Leija after all of this.
What would she even say?
All kinds of things floated in her head, but it was such an awkward situation.
“I found you drunk wandering the halls–”
No, not, found you. Leija might twist that to mean Homa specifically grabbed her–
But if she laid the blame on Leija herself too thick that’d piss her off too.
There was no winning–!
Suddenly, Homa hit something soft and firm.
In front of her was supposed to be the elevator, but her mind had wandered off.
When she looked up, there was something in front of the elevator door.
It was like–
A case– a huge white case, with a synthetic felt covering and a steel frame.
For a tool or maybe even a musical instrument? Homa had seen things like this, but–
Someone had left it in front of the elevator door–? Why? It was taller than Homa herself.
She made to move it, more of a reflex than anything, feeling the weight of it as she tried.
Dull tap-tapping on the floor– heels?
Danger! Cried an unheeded voice in her mind–
Homa looked aside in time to see a black-gloved hand strike her with something.
She felt a brief burning sensation, her muscles seizing up, horrible nausea.
And the hands seizing her– something pricking her– burning in her veins–
Homa struggled on sheer instinct, but her strength faded extraordinarily quickly.
She tripped over her own feet and would have fallen had it not been for the black gloves.
Gripping her by her jumpsuit, unzipping the case blocking the elevator–
Her vision went dark as she caught a flash of waving blond hair in a thickening fog.
Inside the closed case, limbs going limp, Homa’s world and mind went pitch black.
“–Oh look, she’s coming to. I guess we won’t get to see my tenth straight winning hand in a row. Get the synthestitcher ready. I’ll make her smile for the camera. Then we can really get to work.”
Footsteps on water. A voice. A familiar voice.
She quivered, from the back of her neck down to her tail.
Her stomach felt hot, her nose was running. For a moment, the world was spinning.
Slowly spreading eyelids unveiled a world of intermittent, dim red light.
She felt water. Her feet splashed as she tried to move her limbs.
Homa could move her feet just a little, but not her torso, or her arms.
Mental fog cleared up just enough to begin to understand her predicament.
B.S.W, her workplace, was where her body expected to have been.
Instead, she awakened in the middle of an empty place, three times as wide and long as a room, with a bar at one end and shuttered windowpanes on the other. Judging by the bar shelves it may have once been stocked up, but there only scattered old bottles and broken shards left. There was an entrance door and a door out to the back, the former broken open and the latter barricaded with junk drawn from the rest of the venue. There were plastic restaurant chairs whole or in pieces scattered around the room.
Because the lights were malfunctioning, there was only intermittent flashes of white light, coming on with different periods of seconds in between each flash in a way that was maddening. The only consistent light came from the red emergency alarm light, and because this light was revolving, from the high center of the wall, it cast eerie shadows over the other occupants. Taken together it was like a vision from out of nightmare, nearly panic inducing, Homa wanted to keep her eyes shut and go back to sleep.
And indeed, keeping them open was difficult, they teared up.
Struggling to breathe as more of her senses returned to her; enough to realize her arms were bound behind her back, her feet were bound. Involuntarily she started to struggle, forcing her feet apart, forcing her arms, shifting her weight forward and back on the seat. Moaning with frustration when she realized how tight her bonds were, and that they were chafing skin– skin that was out and exposed, because Homa was stripped completely naked. Her entire body shivered with sudden fear. She was bound to a chair with her arms stretched and behind her back, her legs tied apart and to the chair and naked.
“H-h-elp.” She whimpered, as her voice started to return to her. “He-He-HELP!”
“Nobody will hear you. Be quiet.”
Homa heard a voice, and she heard something, like a mechanical switch being flipped.
In front of her, a figure coming into focus threw something on the ground.
She stepped on it, her heels easily crunching it under the water.
Then she closed toward Homa, heels splashing then tapping in succession on the floor.
“Are you awake now? Can you see my hand?”
Waving her black-gloved fingers in front of Homa was Kitty McRoosevelt. She bent in.
Narrowed eyes, messy blond hair, mere centimeters from Homa’s own face. She smiled softly.
“Help me–” Homa whimpered, “Kitty– Help–”
“I brought you here, Homa.”
As if to punctuate this, she ran one of her fingers down the inside of Homa’s thigh.
Homa clenched her teeth, wracked with another full-body shudder. It was so cold here!
And Kitty’s finger was pressing hard on her skin. Near somewhere sensitive–
Homa cried out. “Please let me go! Please don’t kill me!”
“Relax. I’m not going to kill you. And you’ll be freed once everything is over.”
“It doesn’t concern you. Just be quiet, put your eyes forward, and smile for me.”
Homa realized Kitty wasn’t alone.
When her vision came back in full, the blurry figures farther in the distance came into focus, shifting something on wheels towards her. It reminded Homa of the cameras in the photo booth at Ballad’s Paradise, except that they were on top of a large, enclosed metal box that was itself on a wheeled stand. It was operated by a woman in a black bodysuit with intermittent black or blue plates across the surface, like armor and she looked–
slim and slightly muscular with bright fruity orange skin,
her eyes were green and w-shaped– her hair was long and red and purple, and–
and some of her hair, was positioning the camera, while her arms and legs pushed the cart,
“She needs to look straight at the camera until the datasheet compiles.”
When the Katarran noticed Homa staring at her, she winked with a mischievous smile.
“But she’s preoccupied with other things.”
“I’ll set her straight. How long does she have to stare?”
“We’ve never done this on a Shimii. It might take longer. Maybe twenty seconds?”
At the knocked-down front door, there was a burly blue man without hair, an eel-like tail coming out of his armor. There was a third person, a similar man, who was standing by near the windowpanes. All of them were armed and lightly armored, they had guns, Homa did not know the exact models but the form factor suggested assault rifles, which she knew from studying Diver models and gear.
She felt a light smack on her cheek and shut her eyes reflexively from the touch.
“Homa, stare at the camera for me for thirty seconds with a neutral expression.”
Kitty wanted her to stare at the camera– she would not! She’d avoid it at any cost!
In response Homa shut her eyes and stared straight at the ground, gritting her teeth.
“Don’t be stupid.” Kitty said. “Do this for me and you will get to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and go about your business like none of this happened. Just open your eyes and look natural for the camera.”
”N-n-no. Let me go. Stop this and let me go.” Homa whimpered.
”I’m doing this to keep you safe, you brat. I could drag you with me back to B.S.W, force your face into every authentication camera like you’re a piece of equipment. There are ways to make that work– cruel ways. I’m being humane here, Homa. Look at the camera, now. Or I will have to make you do it.”
She needed Homa’s face to open all of Bertrand’s doors. To get into B.S.W. illegally.
There were cameras with facial recognition. Only Bertrand and his employees, who were registered with the station, could open them. They needed their work permits and to be physically present for security purposes. For the front bulkhead, but also for the cargo elevator access and for the berth authentications– it had to be a B.S.W employee holding the authentication keys and the only way for the computer to know was using imaging cameras. That was what all this was about,
and in the morning, too, when Kitty asked–!
Homa had been so stupid! Imani warned her to be careful! Kitty really was dangerous!
“Where are my clothes? Let me have my clothes and let me go!” Homa begged.
“I’ve found people are more compliant when they can’t hide. Open your eyes, Homa.”
“Fuck you! You’re not using me! You pervert!”
Homa’s insults came out choked, quivering with the rest of her body.
She heard Kitty sigh audibly. Behind her, the Katarran cuttlefish woman laughed.
“Feisty!” She said in jest.
“You know, I had a hunch you’d be difficult. This sucks. You, hold the chair.” Kitty said.
Footsteps splashed over and someone grabbed hold of the back of the chair–
In the next instant, Homa felt her stomach almost push into her spine as something struck.
She was hit in the gut, by something fast, both blunt and sharp, with brutal strength.
Vomit rose to her throat. She choked, she wanted to double over but could not.
Her gagging and gasping for breath turned to pained screams.
There was an immense pain focused upon a point in her upper abdomen.
Kitty had kicked her! She had kicked her with those heels!
Homa was in so much pain, she thought she would die.
Her eyes forced open from the shock, spinning with panic, was that blood–?
No it was just– the water and the red light–
“Next time I’m stomping on your dick.” Kitty shouted. “Stare at the fucking camera.”
Homa gasped for breath, openly sobbing. She couldn’t believe this was happening.
Her surroundings were nightmarish, and she felt the most brutal pain in her life.
Not even the worst of Leija’s beatings had been this terrifying.
Kitty was really going to any lengths. She would mutilate her. She would kill her.
Any thought of resistance had left her body instantly. She was hurt, her mind swimming, she felt so pathetic, so weak, and helpless and useless. Acid-tasting spit dribbling from her open mouth, her stomach a tight knot of unbearable pain. Shivering from the cold that transferred from the water her feet were in and the moist air collecting on her sweating bare skin. Burning tears pouring from her eyes, fluids from her nose, tasting hot bitterness rising at the back of her throat. She couldn’t fight back!
“Please–” Homa whimpered. “Please don’t kill me.”
Homa felt something cold sliding down from her lower abdomen and stopping at her groin.
Kitty with the long, suppressed barrel of a black pistol pointed at Homa’s–
“Jeez. This is brutal. And I thought it’d be cuttle-quick.” Remarked the cuttlefish woman.
“Shut up. I didn’t pay for your opinions.” Kitty said. “Homa, I’m going to wipe your face with my other hand. Stare at the camera with a neutral expression for thirty seconds and this bullshit is over. I’m on a fucking clock. I’m doing it this way for you. I don’t have to do this. You or your corpse can suffice with a little preparation– I’m trying to be kind to you. I’m trying to put you out of harms way. Stop being so fucking difficult and look at the camera. Thirty seconds. And you never have to see me again.”
As she promised, Kitty’s fingers rolled over Homa’s eyes and nose with a stiff nylon wipe.
Homa’s mind was a blank. There was no way she could resist anymore.
One kick. One kick was all it took.
Her mind was filled with admonishments. You’re so weak, so pathetic, so useless.
Nowhere near close to a hero. Just a sad little sack of tears and blood so easily broken.
Homa looked straight at the camera, keeping as composed as she could.
A thin strip of light glowed across her features. It was a laser scanner, mapping her face.
After twenty-five seconds it stopped. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Said the cuttlefish.
After the camera captured her appearance, the attached box whirred to life. Instruments inside it slid and grinded for a minute, Homa staring at it as if in a trance. Then, from the box, the Katarran extracted what looked like a partial mask, with crosshatched colors blended into its plastic exterior. It was not her entire face, it was parts of the bridge of her nose, her lips, cheekbone, ears.
“Are you sure this is correct?” Kitty asked the cuttlefish woman, staring at the mask.
“Of course. The purpose of this mask is to trick the facial recognition. So the computer scans her face and prints out what it saw. Computers like this don’t recognize your entire face, they are not humans, they don’t see like we do. They see specific unique features that distinguish faces from each other. This mask is a perfect representation of what an authentication camera computer sees when it sees this Shimii.”
With a confident smile, the cuttlefish woman lifted the mask over her own face.
“Want a demo?” She asked.
Homa felt the barrel of Kitty’s pistol lift from her groin.
“I’m satisfied.” She said.
”So, mind telling this humble technician what happens now?”
“You stay here. I’m going out with the rest of the team to prepare. We need to be in place for my first package. We have to dock them immediately when they arrive, and we preferably want to move after B.S.W’s work hours. Thanks to sleeping beauty here, our window is tight. Speaking of which,”
Kitty turned to the dazed Homa and looked into her eyes again.
She lifted something to Homa’s sight. It was her black slate portable.
“Unlock this for me, would you?”
Mindlessly, Homa put her thumb on the on/off button when Kitty brought the portable near.
Kitty then scrolled through, making no expression as she rifled through Homa’s messages.
Her coldly inexpressive face lit by the white screen.
After a few minutes, she held the portable away from her, and put a bullet through it.
Homa had been bracing for a booming shot, but it was a sharp thwick instead.
Nevertheless, the discharge of energy was close enough to her naked body to rattle her.
“Here you go, my little snitch.” Kitty dismissively threw the phone at Homa’s lap.
“Does that alter our plan any?” asked the cuttlefish woman, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“Nope. Imani Hadžić has no idea where we are or what we’re doing.” Kitty said.
She then engaged the safety with a quick click of a finger and stowed the gun in her coat.
“You three keep an eye on her. Don’t do anything. You should only be under contract for like thirteen hours more, so just kick back and relax. If shit breaks bad, just retreat, and leave her here. Someone will find her eventually. We’re hitting up Bertrand’s tonight to avoid unnecessary issues with the staff. It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it before the packages. I’ll call you when the deed is done and you’re free to go.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Goodbye forever, Homa Baumann. I’m sorry we had to leave on such bad terms.”
Kitty waved her fingers at Homa and promptly left the bar through the front door.
Leaving Homa naked, cold, and alone with the two burly guards and the cuttlefish woman.
As soon as Kitty left, the cuttlefish woman wandered over to the bar and looked behind it.
“It’s dry here. It’s lifted above the flood level. I’m gonna move her chair over here.”
“Whatever you say.”
None of the burly men seemed particularly interested in the cuttlefish woman’s doings.
She grabbed Homa’s chair, seemingly without minding her weight, and moved the hurting and miserably cold Shimii from the flooded floor over behind the bar before setting her down. Homa’s feet touched dry ground, and she felt just a bit of relief. It felt far better when the woman cut open a bag and withdrew Homa’s jumpsuit and tanktop from it, laying the suit over Homa’s body like a blanket, and the rest of the clothes on her lap. She smiled at Homa, seemingly satisfied with the state of things.
Homa felt a brief distress, looking down at her belongings.
Her ID was still there, but her work permit keycard was gone. Kitty must have taken it.
Without it, Homa would not be able to get through the checkpoints!
That Katarran woman did not notice the shift in Homa’s expression back to a brief panic.
“There, it’s better now, isn’t it? Don’t worry– I only do what the client pays for. Wasting time hurting or killing you is just wasting my energy, and for a Katarran, time and stamina are money.”
She returned to the bar floor and pulled up one of the knocked-over chairs and sat on it.
It really did not matter that Kitty had not shot her dick off– Homa was effectively dead.
Without her papers– her mind started spiraling at the thought. All her work was undone.
Kitty had robbed her of everything she had worked so horribly hard for.
“Now we wait. Oh, you know what? Kitty left a few of these behind. These are useful.”
On the bar, the cuttlefish-woman picked up a small black plastic bag. Tearing it open, she withdrew a little black cylinder with three needles and a trigger on the back– a punch-injector.
“Here. This will make it more peaceful for you. I’m truly sorry for all the trouble.”
Reaching over the bar, the cuttlefish woman put the cylinder to Homa’s throat.
Immediately Homa recalled the sensation of the jab as if it was burned into her memory.
Homa struggled reflexively but had nowhere to move. Her tearful eyes soon shut again.
Once more, she fell unconscious, just like when Kitty had attacked her before.
Homa’s mind went black. Falling and falling incorporeally through a void of– colors.
Be At Peace. Sleep Well. Peaceful Place.
Homa’s world of pitch black became replaced with one of stark white.
Her body felt like it was suspended in mid-air, but she was not falling, she was not flying.
She realized she was lying down and staring at a sky of silver-white and gray tree crowns. Laying down in a puddle of lukewarm water, floating just above its surface. She was surrounded by enormous tree trunks. Far in the sky, the branches at the tops of the trees made up the sky, like clouds made of rocky bark. Between the trees, the colors swirled and traveled like floating rivers.
Peaceful Place. Safe Place. We’re Sorry.
That voice reverberated across the clearing in the forest, across Homa’s puddle.
It was so kind–
Homa wanted to cry. It was the kindest, gentlest voice that had ever spoken to her.
It was their voice– all of them were speaking. To each other. To her. To everything.
“Don’t be sorry. Thank you. I can feel how much you care.”
In the next instant, Homa lost all buoyancy.
Her body sank right into the water. It was suddenly so deep, so crushingly heavy.
She sank farther and farther until the trees were impossible to view.
No matter how much she struggled, the pull of the water was inescapable.
Until the light completely vanished in front of her eyes.
Thrown from paradise down into the black depths of the Imbrium Ocean.
Awakening came like a hammer blow to her face.
Her eyes tearful, assaulted by the repugnant colors of the bar. Her sweat-soaked body, cold under the makeshift sheet of her jumpsuit, shivered as soon as sensation returned to it. Her empty lungs demanded choppy, sucking breaths that hurt her chest. She bent forward, caught between heaving from her dry, itching throat and sucking for air for her pounding chest, shaking all over.
For the first time, Homa noticed Kitty hadn’t taken her necklace–
“Huh? You two, the door–!”
Light flashed from outside the door, briefly illuminating the room.
Thick smoke poured into the bar. The cuttlefish Katarran yelled for her companions.
Homa could see the silhouette of one of the men running to the side of the door. Putting his back to it, assault rifle in hand. He dropped a small device that he had perhaps intended to use to spy through the door, but it was useless, the smoke was thickest there. Grunting with frustration he reached the barrel of his rifle through the door and began to open fire indiscriminately–
At which point, something slipped into the room right under the gunfire.
There was a bright glint, an arcing flash like swinging a glowstick in a dark room.
In an instant the Katarran’s arm severed at the joint.
His assault rifle fell into the water. Homa heard the blood dribbling onto the floodwaters.
The assailant kicked the weapon away and in one fluid motion leaped the second burly Katarran, moving extremely quickly despite the flooded room. Homa did not even hear a splash, it was as if the figure glided over the surface, leaped in one bound. Heedless of the status of his companion, the second Katarran gunman opened fire toward the entrance of the bar. His wounded companion was cut down by the haphazard hail of bullets, a flashing muzzle in the dark, the sound of shell casings hitting water–
Immediately after, Homa saw that same glint as before, the flash of electricity–
Vibroblade– it was a vibroblade!
Having somehow avoided the gunfire, the assailant thrust the blade through the man.
Engaged to cut, it entered the Katarran’s chest, the light dimming inside him.
Flashing again, when the assailant cut free of his ribcage, spilling his flank onto the floor.
“I surrender! I surrender! I’m just a technician!”
That cuttlefish woman raised her arms and moved away from the Katarran’s gear in the corner of the room. At this point the smoke had begun to settle. Even the damaged air circulators in this disused bar could still sense smoke intermittently and began to suck it out. Once enough of the smoke had gone Homa saw more of the gory scene on the opposite side of the bar. At the door one of the Katarrans was riddled with bullets and his arm was a bloody stump. His blood streaked the water, flowing out of the bar due to the circulators struggling to dry up the floor. Farther along the windowed front wall, the second Katarran– Homa couldn’t even look. It was– it was all coming out of him. Everything inside him.
She didn’t want to think about it or see it.
Brandishing the edge of a vibroblade along the neck of the cuttlefish woman, it was–
Orderly dark blue hair, rounded, neatly manicured cat ears, a long, thick tail–
Glasses– a beautiful, coldly inexpressive, blood-spattered face–
Wearing a black uniform, cape hanging off her shoulders with clips, arms out of the sleeves.
“Imani! Imani, you came to rescue me!”
Homa screamed at the top of her lungs. Tears burst out of her eyes.
Imani Hadžić glanced her way. Her eyes briefly lingered. “I’m sorry it took me this long.”
She glanced down at the woman begging for her mercy.
“Homa, was it Kitty McRoosevelt who abducted you? These Katarrans work for her?”
At her feet, the Katarran woman clapped her hands together as if in prayer.
“Yes! It was her, and everyone here was working for her!” She cried out.
“Homa?” Imani asked again for confirmation.
“Y-Yes. It’s like she said.” Homa said. Imani had such a focused expression it was mildly frightening.
Once Homa’s mind began connecting the dots, her body started shaking again.
She had been focusing on the familiar face, reaching out for comfort.
But this wasn’t just the troubled girl she had a sweet date with, the girl she had her first kiss with. Imani Hadžić, in that uniform, was a deadly agent of the Volkisch Movement. On the sleeves of her jacket were the black sun armband and the sword and moon armband that Homa could not place, but she was still part of the Volkisch even without their common symbols. And what the Volkisch Movement did, as far as Homa knew and understood, was killing people. Imani Hadžić had come here to kill people.
Imani had killed two armed men like it was nothing. Using a personnel-size vibroblade.
None of them could even touch a hair on her head.
And now she had her sword to the throat of a third victim.
“Did Kitty tell you what she intended to do?” Imani asked the cuttlefish woman.
“We spoke in confidential language. We are just helping her deliver packages to B.S.W.”
Imani lifted the blade from the woman’s neck.
Her arm pulled back– Homa could already see the swing coming and held her breath–
Then their eyes met, across the room. Imani glanced at her with a troubled expression.
She swung the blade over the head of the cuttlefish woman.
Slicing the very tips of the diaphanous fins flapping up from the woman’s head.
“Think carefully about your choice of employer next time.”
Imani lifted her foot and kicked the woman in the face and into the nearby wall.
Where she came to rest, nose broken, eyes bruised and shut, lying limply in the water.
But with her chest rising and falling. She was breathing. She wasn’t dead.
Homa let out the air she had been sucking in. Accompanied by a tiny, helpless sob.
Imani sheathed her vibroblade and glanced about the room.
“Ya Allah…” She sighed. “What a mess. Let’s get you out of those bonds.”
Nonchalantly she walked behind the bar. Once she got to see Homa up close, her eyes drew a bit wide. Homa had her shoulders up, her head down, the jumpsuit falling off her and exposing her breasts. Her face was deeply flushed and felt hot. Not just from all the crying, screaming, and near-vomiting which she had suffered. She was acutely aware that she was bound and completely naked in front of Imani.
Imani pulled the jumpsuit off her and withdrew from her uniform a small vibroknife.
She crawled around close to the bar cut Homa’s hands free, and then her feet.
Homa thought she would die of embarrassment from having Imani all over her like this.
Far more material and readily present was all the pain that she felt.
Her wrists had red marks, as did her ankles. Her belly had an awful bruise. Her whole body ached from struggling against the bonds, from being stricken by Kitty, from the punctures by the drug injectors, and from the stressful position in which she had been bound to the chair. She felt like she had not eaten in a day and her limbs were like jelly when Imani helped her stand off the chair. Unfortunately, she was not so light-headed that anything felt dream-like. Homa was cursed by a sharpness of her faculties.
“Thank you, thank you, Imani,”
Homa embraced Imani tightly, and Imani gently embraced her back.
“How did you find me?” Homa asked.
Imani briefly knelt down, causing Homa’s heart to jump anew from embarrassment.
From the floor, she grabbed Homa’s portable. It had a bullet-hole right through it.
“This was designed to track you if you failed to answer my messages within a certain time.”
She handed the broken portable to Homa, along with, surprisingly, a fresh one.
“That one’s storage is still good. Copy everything over to this one when you can.”
“Don’t mention it, okay? I want to stay in touch. Money is no object for my little Ho~ma~.”
Imani walked out from behind the bar with a smile.
Homa put her clothes back on as quickly as she could and put both portables away.
She got the hang of walking again and rushed over to the Katarran woman on the wall.
Rifling through her suit, she found a communicator.
“Here, Imani! You can use this to track Kitty!”
Homa threw the communicator at Imani, who caught it.
Her own hands lingered a bit longer on the Katarran woman’s gear–
Because– a dark series of thoughts filled her mind as she noticed how calm Imani was.
“Imani, is Kitty really going to destroy the station? You don’t seem to be in a rush.”
All of this time, Imani had been content to sit passively and let Homa report on Kitty’s goings-on. At no point had Imani stopped Kitty despite knowing where she was and suspecting her of plotting some wrongdoing. She put Homa in danger, in fact, which Homa was easily willing to forgive because Imani’s face in the chaotic light of the bar looked too beautiful to hold accountable. She had been tracking Homa, so she was prepared, to some degree, for Homa to be abducted or endangered.
It looked to Homa like Imani knew everything that was going to happen.
And that she was letting it happen. She wasn’t even going to try the communicator.
This was the final tell– how calm Imani was standing in the center of the flooded bar.
Even now that Kitty’s plan was in motion. Imani did not see it as urgent.
“I’m grateful you came to my rescue. I was so scared. They even hurt me, Imani. But you have to tell me the truth now. You are not going to stop Kitty, are you? It’s like– you just wanted to use me to find out when Kitty’s plot got underway. But you aren’t going to stop it at all? I deserve to know.”
Imani averted her gaze.
“I– I wasn’t just using you. I had fun– I’d like to have a different relationship to you.”
“Imani, we can’t have a different relationship right now.” Homa said. “Right now– please tell me the truth. You owe it to me. Is Kitty going to destroy the station? If she is, then you must be completely insane. But she is not going to right? She’s doing something else. And you’re going to sit back and watch.”
Imani smiled gently. She laughed, just a little. It was a bitter laugh.
“Will Kitty McRoosevelt destroy the station? You know, I’m actually not certain, little Ho~ma~. It depends on how she feels. Hers will be the final judgment. Will her hatred toward us allow her to kill us so easily and readily? Will we deserve the fury of her broken heart? At first, I was certain she would not. But recently, Homa, I’ve been feeling like, I wish I could allow myself to destroy everything and remake it to serve my own little heart. Perhaps Kitty will indeed kill us all, profiting nobody in the process.”
She could not meet Homa’s gaze as she spoke. She arranged some hair behind her ear.
Homa silently watched her fidget. She drew nearer as if demanding a real answer that way.
“Kitty McRoosevelt is going to engineer a Core Separation to put the station complex out of live power and into on emergency backup power. Kreuzung is not well prepared for this kind of scenario. Kitty’s aim is to bring down the automated missile and gun defenses of the station complex. This will allow her to infiltrate combat troops and commence a coup. Kitty is a foreign agent, from the Cogitum.”
Speaking those words, Imani finally met Homa’s face with an eerie smile.
“Kitty doesn’t know that the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache is secretly underway to intervene. Her forces will be utterly destroyed, and the station will come under the command of my superior. Her name is Vesna Nasser. Daughter of the late Shimii revolutionary Osir Nasser. I am a member of the Volkisch because of her, Homa. I pledged myself to her cause, to fight to create a new future for the Shimii.”
Tears drew from Imani’s eyes. Smiling and weeping as she laid herself bare.
“Knowing all this, Homa– do you hate me? I don’t care if you find it unacceptable, but–”
Homa took a step in and without thinking or warning, pulled Imani into a kiss.
She threw her reluctance aside, brought her passion forward, seizing upon Imani.
Imani complied readily. Their tear-stained eyes met until hers closed.
Letting herself be taken in by Homa’s ardor, her capturing lips and the snare of her tongue.
One hand brushing Imani’s soft hair aside between kisses, stroking her cheek.
And the second, rising suddenly–
Sticking a punch injector of Kitty’s knockout drug into Imani’s neck.
She expected Imani to fight back then, to be roaring mad, to draw her blade–
Instead, both of them were weeping gently, eyes fixed again as Imani’s senses clouded.
Imani made no move to resist. As if, perhaps, she knew, and allowed it to happen.
Staring deep into her eyes, after tasting her lips– Homa could not help but cry.
“I don’t hate you.” Homa said. “I hate the things that happened to you.”
“Was that kiss real?” Imani asked. Her words slurring. Her face starting to numb.
“Yes. It was real. It wasn’t like the theater.” Homa said. “Imani I– I–”
She couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to Imani. Even though she did– painfully, she really did.
In that moment, Homa wanted to love Imani more than anything.
She wished they could keep texting and go on dates to stupid kitschy places.
But as long as Imani wore the evil skin of that uniform, Homa could not be with her.
That damned uniform, in that moment, Homa hated nothing more than the people behind it.
“Imani– I am going to make that Vesna Nasser regret putting all this in your head!”
Smiling, Imani drifted off to sleep in Homa’s arms.
Homa set her down in the corner with the remainder of the Katarran’s gear.
She quickly applied the last punch injector to the cuttlefish woman’s neck, making sure to prolong her unconsciousness so she wouldn’t wake up first and take revenge on Imani while she slept. Then, rummaging through Imani’s own gear, she took the small vibroknife– and a small pistol. Homa did not know the caliber or model, but it was suppressed, just like Kitty’s. It might come in handy. She had never fired a gun in anger, but she knew the principles behind it. Leija had shown her how to do it once.
Swallowing hard, Homa realized what she was embroiled in and stifled a sob.
Crying hard over the sleeping body of Imani Hadžić. She took Kitty’s communicator back.
Looking at the objects in her hands. Weapons and tactical gear– it was war.
War had really come to Kreuzung Station once again. Everything was happening too fast.
All of Homa’s senses told her it was time to knuckle down and run away from this.
She was no hero, Imani would never be her princess to save, none of this was within her power.
Homa thought she was a useless girl who was unlucky enough to be dragged into a mess.
Everything attached to her spine hurt in some way.
She had never been in a real fight. Everyone in this bar could kick her ass.
And she was completely in over her head.
Just a helpless girl crying over the wreckage of everything she ever loved.
“But I can’t just sit here. I have to do something! I can’t just watch! I’d hate myself for it!”
Reflexively, Homa grabbed hold her necklace and squeezed the little rock tight.
Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she felt a warm, encouraging thought.
We Believe In You.
You Are Courageous.
Taken by a sudden impetus, Homa grit her teeth, put away the gear in her jumpsuit and took off running, splashing through the floor of the flooded bar, out into an unfamiliar and even more flooded street. She saw an elevator shaft in the distance and ran for it, knowing she would at least find the current block and tier on that elevator. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the part-flooded streets.
“I have to stop her. I have to stop her–”
Suddenly, for a second or two, everything went dark.
Darker than it had ever been. Pitch black. Every light, every monitor, everything.
Then the lights came back on. Homa stopped in her tracks.
Revolving red alarm lights flashed from every wall and the ceiling.
On every touch-capable surface, the screens began to display the same thing.
Large red letters and a symbolic image of a pillar being lifted from within a ring.
In every direction, from every surface, as total as the darkness before.
Homa stood, her shadow spinning around her with the red lights and flashing warnings.
Transfixed with eyes drawn wide and lips quivering, in water above her ankles.
WARNING. CORE SEPARATION.
“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia?”
Deep beneath the baseplate of Kreuzung’s Core Station tower were the nearly-abandoned maintenance tunnels for some of the lower-class blocks. Several had flooded, but there were just enough operable passages for the interests of its current occupants, and the flooding in the rest was pretty convenient on the whole. In a long square room, heavily ventilated but with rather poor air circulation due to mechanical failures, the smell of iron from coagulating blood and decaying flesh lingered. Maimed corpses had been lined up against the walls. Someone had put their hands together as if in macabre prayer.
Between the dead worshipers stood two figures.
One entirely pale androgynous body, short-haired, lean, in a white robe.
Another a pale, dark-haired woman in a long black dress, long-limbed, yellow-eyed.
Her face was stark white, with beautiful but vacant features like an exquisite doll.
Over her head, orbited a halo like a circle of blood, semi-solid and spinning.
“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia? Tristitia fulfilled her previous purpose.”
Her hands were stained with the blood of the room’s most recent occupant.
“I keep telling you, these are only orders or tasks. A purpose shouldn’t be something as minor as killing people and collecting their bodies! Your purpose should be grand, Enforcer VIII!”
The White-Robed Figure laid their hands on the shoulders of their companion.
“What should be Tristitia’s purpose?”
“Of course, your purpose should be to worship! To become closer to God!”
“Tristitia does not understand. How would Tristitia carry out ‘worship’?”
“Oh but that is a fraught subject! Even with our vast potential, such questions elude us!”
“Tristitia does not understand. Please try to explain Tristitia’s new purpose.”
“It is fine! A fine question! I have not come unprepared! I have been thinking about this, in fact. What should be the form of worship? Why, worship should be closeness to God. But what is God? To know God we must appreciate the form of God. But then what is the form of God? God is the greatest beauty, the greatest strength, the greatest perception– but then, what is the form of greatness? Greatness is indefatigable, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncollapsible! Therefore–”
“Tristitia does not understand.”
Tristitia’s words were no longer being heeded. Her companion was now lost in rhetoric.
“Of course, a God can only be worshiped by sentient, living beings, and as such, a God must be perceptible to them. There is only one power that can be called greatest and unstoppable, while being perceptible to sentient beings– the power of our Lord and Savior Arbitrator II, Titan of Aether! It is the Aether that is the attainable form of God to which the living must aspire!”
They threw their hands up and smiled with vibrating, sharp teeth at the steel roof.
“Endless stillness adrift! Thought flowing downstream! Without space, time, or form, only the purity of the mind released from the impetus of flesh! This is the true form of God– so why worship through hard work and dedication? When God is peace itself? No, no, no– one can only approximate the form of God through Sloth! Sloth so unmoving and grand it reverses creation! That is true worship! That is true Sloth! Our God is only reachable through the ultimate stillness! Be it death or enlightenment!”
After their screaming tirade, the creature turned to their companion with expectant eyes.
“Well? Well?” They demanded.
“Do you have an actionable purpose for Tristitia?” She replied in a dry tone of voice.
“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia, that Tristitia can actually understand.”
One deadpan voice, belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VIII, “The Despair”– or Tristitia.
And one hysterical, impassioned voice belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VI, “The Sloth.”
These were the only sounds reverberating from these old maintenance tunnels.
A series of alarms began to ring out from the upper floors.
When they finally made it to the maintenance tunnels, the warnings lit up the cracked screens on the walls behind the corners, creating and eerie scene dominated by the color red rather than the dim yellow-white of tunnel’s LEDs. The appearance of these warnings seemed to cheer up Enforcer VI once again, to the degree that they started cackling almost in tandem with them.
“A signal from God! Oh purposeless doll, it appears it is time for a task after all!”
Enforcer VI turned nonchalantly toward Enforcer VIII, and from the interior of their robe, procured a round lump of meat wrapped in a silvery skin. Enforcer VIII stood blankly staring while Enforce VI shoved two fingers into her mouth, forced it open, and tipped the morsel inside before shutting Enforcer VIII’s jaw forcefully, as if demonstrating to her how she should chew the blob.
“Create a combat form and depart! The Imbrians have begun the festivities!”
Enforcer VIII began to chew the fleshy fruit herself. Her eyes glowed with red circles.
Around the room, the corpses began to stir, to soften, to melt down and slide away.
Coalescing around the blank-faced, angelic doll as a powerful shell of bone, blood, muscle.
“Your purpose is to stalk through this chaos and kill the heretics! Let the festival begin!”
A choked voice sounded from within the roiling flesh.
“Tristitia will fulfill this purpose.”