chapter FIRST

The VECTOR engine purrs softly in her hand, the wisp-thin blade of the sword leaving a trail of distortion as it moves. Snowflakes part as they touch it.

Her quarry is near. Another VECTOR - almost close enough to taste. A little ball of heat somewhere in the collapsed houses, a whisper in the thick snow.

SEVEN AVIATRIX CERULEAN has been hunting the other VECTOR for almost a year. A year of gentle taunts and sudden ambushes. Of carefully sprung wire-traps, of sniper duels across a forgotten, pitted battlefield. Her first year in the field, and one drenched in memories: her arm severed by a sudden strike; her opponent laughing coyly in the thick snow as CERULEAN watches it flop and wriggle on the snow, and she’s supposed to be afraid or disgusted but there is her traitorous dick pushing up her skirt and—


Remain in the present. Shake off that memory and keep! watch!

And there’s a movement, just in time to relieve her of this unfortunate train of thought. CERULEAN adjusts her stance, steadies the VECTOR engine to track the distant movement, lets her eyes adjust.

A VECTOR can’t be killed - but she certainly can be defeated, captured. CERULEAN’s orders are clear. Disable her if possible, keep her busy otherwise. The identity of this enemy remains unknown, but each day CERULEAN stalks her, she feels like she has a better sense of her rhythms: the infrastructure she’ll strike, the traps she’ll set. When she foresees a wire trap—not there, too obvious, but of course, in this shadowed street, bomb-puckered street where CERULEAN would surely be rushing after the first wave of bombings, how devious—she feels her heart beat faster. Pride, imminent danger, a sense of familiarty stronger than words.

Dangerous stuff.

Well, now she’s got her. Exactly where she expected. No more tricks; no more difficult feelings. CERULEAN will cut her down, time and again, until she has no more will to regenerate—and she’ll hand her over to NEMATODE without any sort of unbecoming conduct. She’s a good VECTOR—one of the best, perhaps. One day.

Her target does not seem to have noticed her. CERULEAN can hardly believe her luck—she’ll be able to finish this up close, watch defeat blossom in her enemy’s eyes. She flicks the engine to LANCE, and…

and there is no more time for thought. Her cloak snaps and ripples behind her, flaring from snow camouflage to a brilliant red. In an instant, she’s across the street, it’s warping to meet her, even VECTOR eyes struggle to keep up - and behind her, a sharp line in the snow, a cloud of turbulence all around it…

Her target is catapulted across the snow, hot arterial blood spraying all over CERULEAN and everywhere else besides. Wipe the blood from her eyes, assume a defensive stance in a smooth movement. VECTORs don’t die that easily. Keep watch, and maybe lick her hand, because what an image.

The body on the floor is not moving.

CERULEAN frowns, moves closer, sword still held ready to cut down any attacker. She had been so sure…

It’s so fucking cold.

But it would be, wouldn’t it? Who’d waste the energy?

You open your eyes to see the same room - still covered with State-issued VECTOR dolls from your childhood, a dusty pile of toy swords in one corner, posters of famous VECTORs drooping on the wall. Fearless, indestructible women, literally larger than life, going out to slay evil and right wrongs with a sword and a laugh. You didn’t even have to be born a girl, they said, hell, most of them aren’t—and you’d held tight onto that, your need coiling with the adults’ sneers…

Still shivering, you tear off the covers, desperately resisting the urge to curl up back there. Clutch your arm around you, scour the floor for some clothes that are clean enough to wear. Your eyes skim over unwashed dishes, drug paraphernalia—your mothers know, you’ve heard them arguing, but erred on the side of non-intervention—and there’s a shapeless grey outfit to go with all the other shapeless grey outfits. Who cares if it’s stained? You’re going to the stable.

Upstairs on the surface, the TV’s on, showing a State functionary droning about the great progress being made in the war, the same stock footage of giants scampering across a hill on their hundreds of legs. Giants have a lot of everything: a lot of legs, a lot of eyes, even a lot of tits, which everyone gets tired of joking about at some point. The camera catches streaks of motion as VECTORs leap around them. This must be old, old footage… you’ve spent long hours digging into the history of the VECTORs, expounding on message boards to pick at the paradox they represented: undeniably effective, but untrustworthy. Prone to obsession and bizarre ideology. Troubling, willful creatures—best kept in isolation.

“Load of horseshit.” You mutter this in a monotone as you shuffle into the kitchen, and honestly, is it the propaganda or your half-baked theories that you’re judging?

The kitchen, unfortunately, proves occupied. Eledone frowns, looking up from the frying pan. You ignore her look, keep your eyes on the screen. A cut to the hollowed out bodies of giants; a close-up on a long-necked scavenger, gliding in to pick the meat from the giant’s vast ribs. Someone—a rebel, a bandit, an opportunistic farmer—shoots it with a long rifle.

It feels like a romantic image. Carrion amidst carrion.

“Jermaine, aren’t you a little young to be so jaded?” Cirrina, this time. She smiles as she says it, creasing the tattoos on her scalp. Mum and mama, you called them once—a forgotten time when nothing hurt. For the sake of that time, you try to smile back. Mutter something noncommittal, and make sure to thank her for making food.

But you can’t keep your thoughts playing along, and off they go again: here, we see an absurd, anachronistic pantomime. The rich house of an Engineer, playing at obsolete social orders, too proud to send their scion to a State-run crèche where he (‘he’) might actually have someone to talk to. And for their trouble? You know how you look—as dirty and hollow-eyed as any unsponsored child from the lower crêches. Someone who’d be lucky to be a stablehand rather than, perhaps, an experimental subject. You’ve seen how your peers look at you, and you can’t meet that gaze, because you know full fucking well you deserve every bit of their contempt.

This internal soliloquy is cut short, abruptly, by the sight of a letter on the table. Suddenly that cynical mood is gone, and you’re a child again, staring mouth open at the recruiter’s reel. The lance, the graceful, geometric patterns around it. The emblem of the State VECTOR Dragoons… suddenly you are filled with trepidation.

Which means Cirrina has left it there. She hasn’t hidden it, hasn’t torn it to shreds. A tiny piece of hope, which you haven’t yet managed to suppress, opens itself up inside you and flutters up through your belly. Maybe they’re coming around…

Turning it over, you can tell it’s already been opened - and resealed, but not very skillfully. That morsel of hope dissolves: back into stomach acid and regret. You rip the letter open, splitting that beautiful emblem. Don’t start crying, not here. At least confirm it, for God’s sake!

There’s plenty of words in there, but your eyes fix on two of them: application rejected. So that’s why she let you see it.

Eledone sighs, turning off the heat and walking round to sit next to you and place hand on your shoulder. You don’t bother to shrug it off. You know what she thinks - it’s what everyone thinks. You should be over this childish fantasy. It’s pretty normal to want to fuck the VECTORs, but certainly not to want to be one.

CERULEAN pushes the body with her foot, and hears a spluttering groan. One thing’s certain - this is no VECTOR, not even a soldier. A civilian boy who was, for reasons known only to him, doing a very bad job of hiding on a VECTOR battlefield. Now with one less arm for his trouble.

Civilians die sometimes - it’s a war. She’s surely killed a fair few in her battles with this strange enemy. Still, up close, it’s a strange feeling—she wouldn’t even have blinked at this kind of injury. She’d once, as a child unaware of insurrections or adult desires, asked why the treatment wouldn’t be extended to everyone. She can’t remember who she’d asked—just their look of revulsion at the concept.

Whoever she’s killed, it’s not her enemy. Another trap, to draw her out? The desperate cruelty of a cornered animal?

She twists on instinct. Incoming attack, from the side, catch it on her sword—but she’s off balance, and the force of it catapults her into the air, a deadly spin. But the VECTOR engine has her; she seizes control of her motion, floats gracefully under its power, LANCE twirling through her hands and eyes scanning—


A darting shape, far too fast to be human. She closes and dives, the engine screaming. Smash against her guard, slide under across the snow. Switch it back to BLADE, seven quick sword strokes in a fraction of a second.

Her opponent, now she can finally see her, is dressed in a distinctly non-regulation uniform. Which is to say, it’s all about halfs. Half a mask, covering the left side of her face with a silvery mirror, and a dress hanging on only one shoulder, leaving half her body essentially bare apart from a small belt. White hair on dark skin; half very long, half shaved completely. Complex geometric traces of wires run up the bare half of her body.

Disgustingly gorgeous.

She effortlessly parries the seven strokes, her own VECTOR sword thrumming in a derisive backhand grip. Her one visible eye is half-closed, a half-smile on her mouth. An appraising glance.

“Quite the look in your eye there, State bitch.” she says, breath misting as it slips over her lips. Her voice is deeper than CERULEAN’s voice-trained comrades, but warm, musical. “State business, or a personal visit?”

CERULEAN smiles back, fiercely. They’re only metres apart now, clear ground now defining a makeshift piste, and she knows what she ought to do: switch her engine to OVERWHELM, and let the modern technology destroy her obsolete foe.

But the Commander is not here. So she remains in BLADE form, and licks her lips, shifts her feet into a swordfighting stance.

Now her opponent is properly grinning. “I see they haven’t trained all the fun out of you yet. What a relief.”

You make your way down to the stables, squeezing between a buzzing crowd of Industrials and the cold stone face of a pillar girl poking out of the wall. Duck through the service entrance, wind your way between foul-smelling stalls, try to pay no mind to the long-nosed screecher (doing exactly what its name implies).

You’re late again. A bit too much crying this morning.

Your boss is there, a full-fledged Industrial, her sleeves proudly rolled up to show her clade badge—and distracted, much to your relief. Facing her is a tall Knight, whose improbably long, digitigrade legs force her to stoop under the ceiling. The manager is staring up at her, shouting something about how much mess the giants have been making, that the State had better be willing to foot the cleanup costs. The Knight looks rather more interested in making sure none of the burrowing insects on the rafter get into her hair.

They don’t make Knights anymore. They’d love to, you’re pretty sure. The Knights were sensible and level-headed sources of patriotic violence, spectacularly powerful directing their Giants… and that was enough, until the first VECTOR defections. Now they’re a joke; the VECTORs made sport of the Giants, and without a Giant, a Knight is just a woman who’s too tall to fit anywhere useful. Tragic story of the price of progress. There’s already films about it.

“Ah, Jermaine…” your boss smiles almost warmly, clearly preparing to butter you up for some absolutely awful cleanup duty. “There’s a good boy.” If she notices you flinch at the word ‘boy’, she doesn’t let on. As you feared, the sappers have started shedding, and the drains are clogged with hair and shit. And as the least senior stable-‘boy’, you know there’s no point protesting. After all, you chose this—insisted on it, even! A tense dinner, where Cirrina had pierced you with her gaze across a stack of printouts. Every clade-induction you had refused.

‘Why?’ It was surely a simple question: such a decisive choice would imply a decisive reason. The easy answer was: you had one last chance to become a VECTOR, before you got too old for the treatment to take. The hard answer was that you already knew, on some level, that their world was poison, and you would rather shovel shit than hobknob with engineers.

You gave them neither answer. It was never the same since.

When nobody’s looking, an urge catches you. A game you used to play: pretend your fork is a VECTOR engine… twirl it like they spin their spears, thrust it forwards and pretend the force of the engine is carrying you to dive down on your prey. No sapper hair or giant shit here, no thick noise of barbed conversation or sneering appraisal or suddenly finding yourself outside the circle. Elegant, bold—and untouchable.

Inevitably someone is, in fact, looking. You try to shut out the ugly laughter from the other side of the stable block, and get back to shovelling hairballs out of the drain. Words like “Isn’t he a little old for that?” drift across the room…

Eventually, something resembling a free flow of water has been restored, and you’re allowed to leave. “Maybe get a shower before you do anything, yeah?”

An hour later, you’re walking aimlessly through the streets, face disappearing in the folds of a heavy hood. Just as you like it. Your breath clouds over chapped lips, and you can feel the cold seeping through your gloves, but you’d rather be out here than back home, face to face with that letter and oh-so-gentle encouragement to pick up a respectable career. Before it’s too late.

You find yourself at the edge of the pleasure clade district—the State’s sanctioned forms of sex work, and its less official cousins. You’ve picked up the hint - that there are other boys ‘like you’, who don’t become VECTORs. They find other ways to make a living. Your mums wouldn’t understand. You’re not even sure you understand it yourself.

You’re too nervous to do anything - and anyway, you don’t know the rules. You try to catch the eye of some of the workers wearing VECTOR uniforms, both State and rebel ones, but they’re busy and once it’s clear you’re not a client, have no time for you.

You’re being a nuisance, you can tell. You’re just about ready to crawl back into your hole.

It is rare for CORAL to find herself this far on the defensive. Not that she’d show it.

The State bitch throws out a lunge—forceful, but overcommitting, too proud of her strength, she’s so young!—and CORAL arcs herself underneath it, reversing her BLADE with a thought to appear under the State girl’s chin, and cackles as her enemy leaps backwards to avoid the blow. Now, hold her ground. The enemy lands low, growling, eyes fixed on CORAL, reverses the motion and flings herself chaotically forward. So fast to abandon her training, but that is her way, this strange, determined girl; the girl who still hounds her across the city after CORAL sliced, shot, bombed, and burned her, eager as ever.

As young as she is, CORAL has been with the insurrection for long enough to build a brittle kind of cynicism about the mass-produced girl-products of the State. She never found out first-hand what happens at those military academies—but over and over, she sees the haunted looks in their eyes, the eagerness to please their instructors and opponents, just anyone who might have them—over and over, the shamed stumbles when they see CORAL’s half-naked costume.

But those girls don’t tend to last.

There’s no killing a VECTOR, but you can break them. The State terms it ‘retirement’. She’s not sure what they do with their ‘retirees’, but nobody’s ever heard of an ex-VECTOR. She’s got it down to an art form, now: a prolonged demonstration that, regeneration or not, she can hurt them inside and out, at any time or place. She has an uncomfortable feeling that their commanders do exactly the same. Keep it up until one day, they disappear—and watch their comrades deploy without them, as if they’d never existed.

Such is war. She’ll meet the State on its own terms. If she didn’t do this… well, she knows too well what VECTOR swords would do to someone like Viv, not blessed with immortality. The State bitches made their choice—fuck ‘em.

But once in a while, she finds one like this.

The raid siren cuts through your self-pity like a BLADE through soft flesh. Nobody waits to look up at the sky and see what’s coming. The street clogs with panicked people, streaming out of doors, winter coats hastily thrown over not much else. Searing advertisements suddenly overwritten by bright arrows pointing the way to the shelters.

You don’t move.

It’s hard to say why.

Perhaps it’s that, if you can’t be a VECTOR, if you can’t even pretend to be one… maybe you can let one of them kill you.

It’s a real good dance.

CERULEAN’s sweating, hyper-aware of each motion her opponent makes. Parry, feint, step back, hop up into the air to float with her VECTOR engine and smile as a BLADE passes harmlessly under her feet. She’s taken a few cuts - nothing particularly serious, already healed. So has her opponent - one cut snapped her belt, turning her half-dress into something more like a cape.

No need to hide the hunger in her eyes. CORAL wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want to be seen. Sometimes, in the tiny privacy of a night at the barracks, she’s imagined slicing her uniform down the middle, just like that, and walking out to join her. A traitorous thought; she cuts herself each time, like she was taught, a BLADE right through the hand between those delicate little bones. The thought keeps coming back like a weed.

CERULEAN catches a heavy blow with her sword, does a little backflip. NEMATODE would be sneering at the superfluous movement, but old Wormy does not really understand why or how VECTORs fight— exactly they put her in charge, no doubt. She skids to a stop in a cloud of loose snow, flips to LANCE—blasts a tunnel through the fog, lands sideways on a wall to spring back and attack from an unexpected direction.

Not so unexpected. Her opponent narrowly sidesteps the blow, brings her own sword up in a precise cut – which CERULEAN twists to avoid – too late.

She watches her own forearm slide down the shaft of the LANCE, still gripping it, then drop off, coming to a halt next to a dark, snow-covered lump. The civilian, from before.

CERULEAN starts laughing gleefully, holding her BLADE in a defensive position. No sense trying to retrieve the arm - she’s got reserves enough to regrow it, several times over when she feels like this. A sliver of bone extends out, along with tiny, white threads of new flesh, knitting themselves together into muscle and tendons and tiny blobs of fat and nerve.

Her opponent doesn’t seem inclined to press her advantage. Why? Cerulean decides not to question it, and goes on the attack before her arm has fully reformed - a sudden flip into an overhead swing. It’s met with a parry, and there’s her opening: CERULEAN’s half-formed bone-shard of an arm is going in, a straight jab to the throat.

Her foe’s eyes widen as blood sprays across them both. And then the enemy VECTOR bounces away, out into the street to alight on an abandoned scuttlebus. CERULEAN stares up at her, arm still held up in the strike, shoulders rising and falling.

“You want me that much?” the enemy calls, softly. Almost awed.

How can she be talking? Already, the wound on her throat has closed. That’s not how it works. And CERULEAN’s arm is hot, searingly, like the thermite training… she casts her eyes down and, oh, what?

There’s no mistaking it. The newly-formed skin is starting to take on the darker tone of her opponent. The new skin closes over the hand, meeting CORAL’s own pale, inner-State brown in a fractal, vitiligo line.

She has CORAL’s hand.

“You didn’t know?” Her opponent raises a perfect eyebrow, and hops down onto the snow. Genuine surprise in her voice. CERULEAN feels ashamed, suddenly—whatever’s going on, she’s failed in her ignorance. Failed to impress this girl, failed like she always will.

Her vile, seditionist enemy flicks off her BLADE, starts to step slowly towards CERULEAN, feet light on the snow. Her ruined dress floats behind her, a dark wedge, vanishing into the growing night.

CERULEAN stares at her new hand… flexes it. It feels like hers. A little piece of CORAL, in her body. No doubt someone back at the FOB could have it out of her, purge her of foreign material and its no doubt subversive temptations.

Feet appear at the edge of her field of view. A finger on her chin, sliding slightly on the blood splatter… then her gaze is being forced up, firm enough that she can scarcely resist. She exhales, fogging the air… and through it, she can see the other VECTOR gazing at her, with an expression that’s almost kind.

“Haven’t fought like that in too long…” A smile creases the corner of the enemy VECTOR’s face. Her eyes sparkle, red light from the emergency signs. “What’s the name—or should I stick with State bitch?”

CERULEAN takes a breath, focuses in on those eyes. What a generous assessment. There was never any competition—every hit from CERULEAN just part of her game. Let this pathetic State bitch (the words echoing round her head now) destroy her dress, flaunt what CERULEAN can never have.

“SEVEN AVIATRIX CERULEAN.” she says. What are you doing, CERULEAN? Don’t give information to the enemy!

Why was that important, again?

Her opponent leans down and—please, don’t stop there, CERULEAN can feel the breath, leans up into it—and kisses Cerulean. Just once.

It’s enough.

It’s nothing like enough.

“Miss AVIATRIX,” she says—and the politeness-particles in her speech drift through CERULEAN’s ears like snowflakes, nobody ever uses them for a VECTOR these days!— “it has been a rare pleasure. Next time they send someone after CORAL—“

She starts to move her hand away. CERULEAN knows what she has to do. A certainty she hasn’t felt since her dreams of becoming a VECTOR shattered against the reality of training. Just reach, grab CORAL’s wrist with the regrown hand, the one with CORAL’s skin tone, oh, CORAL, what a wonderful name—

“Stop.” CERULEAN says.

CORAL stops.

“Oh?” she says, in a voice that seems more amused than surprised.

“I’m not going back.” CERULEAN swallows, trying not to sound pleading. “This is it, you’ve won. I’m defecting… I’m going with you.”

It’s exactly what she wants to say. Confident. CORAL opens her mouth, and CERULEAN’s brittle ice-film of composure snaps. “If, well, you’ll have me.” And she drops to her knees, still holding CORAL’s wrist, and lets the tears come.

“If, well, you’ll have me.” The State girl, CERULEAN, collapses. Her other arm slumps, the VECTOR engine loose in her grip, inactive. But her eyes still look up, pleading with CORAL.

Once in a while, CORAL finds one like this. One who’s already falling out of the State—one who just needs a push to defect. Mostly that push is realising how much they want to fuck CORAL.

CERULEAN’s eyes flicker over to CORAL’s dick — as they should, it’s wobbling around in front of her! Then back to meeting CORAL’s eyes, a flush of shame embarassment, as if that isn’t part of the whole point of defection, that you can suck a girl’s dick when you feel like it.

CORAL kneels also, lowering CERULEAN’s hand with hers until they are knee to knee, face to face, both of them covered in goosebumps and slowly congealing blood. Slowly, she leans in, feeling CERULEAN’s every little shiver, drawing out the question.

Then, just as it becomes unbearable, she answers—a whisper–“Well, of course!”

She lets CERULEAN collapse into her as the tension releases. “I thought it would take a few more fights, some tense ideological exchanges, some carefully orchestrated clothing damage…” She feels CERULEAN giggle, a disbelieving look cross her face. “But if you’re ready to go, CERULEAN, how could I stop you?”

Suddenly, there is fire in CERULEAN’s eyes, a feverish gleam. “All those times you cut me, shot me, blew me up…”

Ah yes, this part. CORAL prepares to say what she usually does, something about the necessities of defending herself this, the promise that there’s no need for that now—

“No, no, CORAL, no…” CERULEAN pushes herself up so their foreheads are almost touching, filling CORAL’s vision. “I… I fucking loved that.” A twitch. “I would hate to think that you’d stop.”

And then there’s you. You open your eyes… foggily. You can’t think straight. Every time you—ow, fuck—every time you try to form a coherent—like knives—every time you try to think, your right arm sends—another—stabbing—pain…

Slowly, you start to see your surroundings. So much red. Must be bleeding a lot. Arterial. All coming out. How are you even conscious? Better get a look at that arm… you can’t see it for some reason.

And oh! There, right in front of you, the two VECTORs.

Are they real? Some kind of dying brain hallucination?

You connect the dots. Martial the evidence, like you did on the message boards. You’re down an arm. There are VECTORs, they were attacking. You wanted to be caught in the crossfire…

Yeah, looks like you got your wish.

Try to move the other arm, while you still can. What for? Reach for the VECTORs? Pathetic, to the end.

Your fingers brush against something. It takes you some time to muster the effort to extend your arm and grab it, whatever it is… but when you do…

An arm. Your arm? …no, it’s clearly the elegant sleeve of a State VECTOR uniform. One of the VECTORs must have been dismembered in the fight, grown a new arm rather than stick it back on.

A terrible, perverse idea comes over you. It’s hard to think about it… so you just do it. Take the left arm, shove it up against the oozing stump on your right… you might not ever be a real VECTOR, or even a fake one, but perhaps you’ll die with a little piece of VECTOR roughly shoved inside your massive, bleeding wound.

Your vision fades. No more thought.

They’re resting in the snow, now. CERULEAN’s head, nestled on CORAL’s naked shoulder, running her fingers along the silver wires, tracing them ever so lightly. Her uniform half off—one joyful stroke, cutting ribs and organs as well as clothing, but those can regenerate. Around them, the debris of their battle… mostly churned up snow and blood, and oh, shit!—somewhere the civilian she’d attacked, she should probably check that boy, he could be alive…

“CORAL…” she says, savouring the name. She can ask about the wires later, though she thinks she has an inkling how they were implanted. Maybe get a few herself. “Earlier… I attacked someone. Thought he was you.”

CORAL nods, squeezes CERULEAN’s shoulder, and lets her stand up on shaky legs. More exhausted emotionally than physically—her body is charged with more power than she’s ever felt. She helps CORAL stand up to join her, inescably a little distracted by the way the setting sun outlines the muscles in her shoulder, her collarbones, and ok, yes, her tits… CORAL catches her glance and smiles coyly, just a little, and CERULEAN wobbles slightly with another hot wave of desire.

(It’s hardly like she’s never fucked. The State employs a pragmatic attitude to its pride and shame, whatever makes them fight best. But somehow, the thought of leaping on each other like feral beasts here, hell, to do so with a murderous rebel, in plain view..! Her dick is pressing hard against her military leggings, and one small cut—but no, she has to prove to CORAL she’s worth this affection…)

Hand in hand, she leads CORAL over to the fallen civilian, not really sure what aid she can actually give. More blood everywhere, a stained raincoat—a pitiful sight! A strange guilt reaches her—if she had the wit to see where things were going and declare her defection before they caught, well, whoever this is.

CORAL suddenly grins and puts a hand over her mouth. For a moment, CERULEAN feels a needle of doubt—defy the State, sure, bomb their factories and facilities, people will die, but surely she couldn’t be enjoying the sight of—and then she notices it too.

It’s hard not to notice, really. The civilian’s back arches dramatically, a startling crack, elongating abruptly and filling out the coat. The boy’s arm is bare, a jagged bloodstained tear created by CERULEAN’s sword, and, wait, that arm isn’t right, the hand is backwards—

An image of the fight rushes back. Oh!

CERULEAN starts laughing too. Her own arm? But of course, how could it be otherwise… she was not awake for her VECTORisation, the technique is a secret, but after what she saw today, it’s all so obvious. What girl’s body was implanted into her at the beginning?

“Isn’t it beautiful?” CORAL has knelt, still grinning; she is lifting the civilian up, keeping his… no, probably not ‘his’, boys do not as a rule attempt to stick pieces of VECTOR inside themselves, or at least, not that specific piece. Well, not in this way! Keeping her airway clear while her limbs snap into their new proportions.

“She’s… she wants to be a VECTOR? Enough to do that?” CERULEAN says. Her head is swimming. She wanted to be a VECTOR, once, wanted it bad enough to push through all the physical screening and ideological tests, recite the oaths, not push away the assessor’s sexual advances despite her discomfort… but that was now years ago, and now, being a VECTOR just feels like pain.

CORAL nods. “This is how we do it out here. No engineers. It’s risky—I mean, even more so! I know, uh, most of you State girls don’t survive.” She catches your expression. “Former State girls. They don’t have you anymore.”

“Mm.” CERULEAN says. “Well. I guess… this was not the ideal way to uh… implant.” She stares, unable to look away. This is what happened to her, in that ward, lined up on those metal beds, shivering and naked while engineers fussed without speaking. The new VECTOR moans softly, still unconscious herself. Her clothes have become too small, wrists and ankles and waist exposed, new abdominal muscles contracting and shaking. Here and there, her skin has cracked, leaking a strange white fluid.

What else can she say? Not how she imagined this day…

“Nothing we have is ideal.” CORAL brushes a flake of blood away, gentle in a way CERULEAN never saw her before. “But we have each other, and we can fight. Look… she’s opening her eyes!”

Your vision is foggy. Your limbs feel strange. Not… wrong. But it feels like the fantasies—the ones where you are a VECTOR, not the ones where a VECTOR cuts you or fucks you or any of the rest of it. A strange euphoria, like some of the milder drugs.

And speaking of VECTORs… you see one now, kneeling in front of you with her uniform in tatters. AVIATRIX clade-insignia, your brain supplies, so a young VECTOR, made during the war. Fuck, she’s hot—all the more so for the blood. Why would you see her? Halucinogens?

Your arms feel… warm. Soft. Suddenly the memory comes flooding back: bleeding out on the snow, taking an arm lying nearby. A strange dream. Did you hit your head? Your mums must be sick with worry, the prelude to anger. Fuck it.

The hallucination is not changing. It’s painfully real. Make it go away, let reality come already! You try to move your lips—dry, something crusting them. Oddly tight clothes. Your chest… you want to cry. It feels too real.

“She survived.” says a voice behind you. A woman’s voice, deep and resonant. A VECTOR voice, like you imagined you would have some day. A voice that sounds… relieved?

“Hey.” says the VECTOR, the one in front of you. “She looks so confused!”

“They always do.” Behind again. “It takes a lot out of you.”

“Well… hey. Hey. Listen, you’re safe. For now. I’m CERULEAN. That’s CORAL. Can you remember what happened? You’ve… implanted my arm, and, well.”

“You’ve become a VECTOR.” The one behind again, sounding a little exasperated. Suddenly, strong hands are up in your armpits, pushing you up. More touch than you’ve had since, well… who even knows? “Now. We’re pretty much out of time. There’s a lot to catch you up on, but…”

Abruptly, you’re off the ground. One arm behind the shoulders, one under the legs. You find yourself looking up… a face you recognise easily. The rebel VECTOR, the one who’d come here, they said she’d destroyed a FURNACE, whose arrival set the underground presses on fire with excitement.

What do you even say?

A jolt of acceleration. The sky above her becomes a blur. You fade away… what an incredible dream.