The train settles, its spindly legs retracting, the vast, battered sheets of insect carapace finally at rest.
You take a breath. CERULEAN and Viv on either side. Outside, the mechanical parts of the train will be unfolding into an emergency stairway, since you can hardly expect a proper train platform. The last part of the journey was especially rough—uncomfortable stares, polite shakes of the head whenever you or CERULEAN offers to do anything in the vicinity of Theosebeia. You’ve been spending a lot of time with CROSSROADS in the vesicle, though she’s been concentrating hard to bring the train’s long-inactive tunneling capabilities online.
The last couple of days were a cacophony of juddering and shaking, as the train’s ancient jaws strained to purge the rock between you and the free settlement. Granny Nauts had been rubbing her hands together with delight, telling everyone in earshot that she hadn’t seen a train cut a new tunnel for most of a lifetime. It was interesting, the first few times.
Now, you wait for the doors to open and welcome you to… to… well, supposedly, to home.
A clunk. “All right, uh, whenever you’re ready.” Even CROSSROADS sounds hesitant. CERULEAN steps forward, and turns the wheel on the escape hatch. You feel Viv flinch from the shrieking metal. Hopefully it won’t break.
You expected darkness outside: a slightly larger cave, perhaps lit by some sort of bioluminescent fungus. Instead, you meet painfully bright sunlight. A searing white wall at the top of a steep valley, everything else cast into broken silhouettes.
Your VECTOR eyes snap to as the others raise hands to block out the sun. It’s startlingly green. Even in State parks, you’ve never seen such vegetation. Plants coat the sides of the valley, clawing past each other to reach the sliver of light in a dense mat. Here and there, you can see large metal shells painted a variety of colours, and human-made bridges stretching to and fro. Darting figures that might be monkeys, or might be VECTORs.
The train is surrounded by water: an underground river which laps at the carapace, carrying away a colourful sheen of oil. A motley contingent waits at the bottom of the emergency chute: tall enough that they must be VECTORs, but far more varied than any VECTORs you’ve ever seen.
You must have gone south. The rainy side of the mountains, where the clouds dump their water on the long climb, especially in the summer. You vaguely recall watching a documentary about State explorers in the rainforest, searching for lost settlements from before the Harsh Century.
Apparently they missed this one.
CERULEAN watches the new VECTORs warily. All sorts of unwelcome memories from her training come back, describing the flaws in these ‘degenerate specimens’ that a loyal State vector could properly exploit. A term which certain members of AVIATRIX clade picked up gleefully to throw at the less popular trainees, while CERULEAN had just turned aside, quietly glad it wasn’t her.
What had happened to those girls? ‘Transferred out’ was all she’d ever heard.
The specimens in question, at least, are not privy to such thoughts, regarding the new arrivals mostly with equal wariness. Not all of them have been VECTORised, but the ones who have not stand among the VECTORs with an ease CERULEAN has never seen from civilians. She’s surprised by the variety: these people must have come from the breadth of the State. Their clothes are equally varied. Some wear the striking uniforms she’s used to in rebel VECTORs, patched together from State materials, replete with studs and decoration. Others wear what must be locally produced fibres, roughly cut and sewn.
But most of all, she’s struck by the variety in their bodies. Not just VECTORs whose bodies are athletic or soft, fat and thin alike, but a VECTOR with antlers, VECTORs with bioluminescent patches, a VECTOR with large compound eyes like an insect. Compared to the military…
She feels CHIASMUS startle slightly and reaches for her hand, as much for herself as anything. Together, they follow Viv down the ramp. It is uncomfortably quiet. A few of the onlookers whisper to each other.
As she reaches the bottom, the big, antlered VECTOR steps deftly around Viv to suddenly clap her on the shoulder, grinning extremely widely. “Welcome, welcome!” she says, her voice booming in the stillness. She looks CERULEAN up and down, taking in her tattered uniform, patched with poorly-fitting gifts from the train crew. “Damn, you’ve really been through it. Come on, someone get these comrades some food!”
The spell broken, CERULEAN finds herself surrounded by unfamiliar faces. They’re much more reticent about touching than most VECTORs she’s known, and full of questions: what’s going on in the State? Where’s CORAL? Did she really create a weapon to use on the Pillar Girls?
Antlers shoes them away, and smiles ruefully. “We don’t get a lot of visitors.” she says. “The name’s CARIBOU. I’m sure you have a ton of questions… but I imagine you’d rather pass them to OPHANIM, under the circumstances.”
CHIASMUS suddenly focuses. “Perhaps you could clarify…” She grimaces. “Who or what exactly is OPHANIM? Some kind of council?”
The antlered VECTOR only smiles wider. “I suppose you could say that!”
“We need two things to proceed: a target, and a vulnerability.” The room is dark; the Director stands somewhere in the shadows, the light just catching the sharp lines of her face. Other functionaries, Investigators and officers sit, listening attently to NEMATODE’s words.
“Our operation with CORAL is coming close to bearing fruit. When it does, we must act quickly. Our actions will quite possibly determine the future of our State.” In more ways than the obvious. “We need a decisive weapon, to answer the insurgents’ attacks on our infrastructure with overwhelming force. Thanks to your diligent work in this facility, we have found one.”
NEMATODE motions for the handlers to bring the VECTOR specimen into the room. POLYTOPE is not bound, but she still stares at the floor, occasionally flicking a glance about the room. NEMATODE spots a few small, sadistic smiles as the officers prepare for the show. Does that one think she can’t see his hand going down his pants?
POLYTOPE’s terror is no act—there are a great many ways this could go wrong. But NEMATODE promised she’ll have the last laugh.
“The device has a variety of delivery methods, but for this demonstration, a pistol will suffice.” NEMATODE opens the dull metal box on the table, and picks up a stubby little gun, like an Arbitrator might use. There are two catridges in the case: one normal, and one locked in another, smaller, box, marked on all sides with radiation hazard symbols.
“POLYTOPE, would you care to demonstrate that your VECTOR abilities are at full capacity?” POLYTOPE swallows, and NEMATODE disapassionately raises the pistol and shoots her in the head. A second later, the wound heals, and she spits out the bullet, its tiny legs wriggling. “As you all know, Arbitrator weapons—though devastating on un-Engineered individuals—are unable to overcome a VECTOR’s self-repair processes. This is both the great advantage of my clade, and the reason we present such a problem.”
A few eyes narrow at that ‘we’. Let them.
“Now.” NEMATODE opens the smaller box, and takes out the second bullet. She feels the tingle of radiation on her skin, sees the haze of it with her VECTOR sight. She chambers it in the pistol.
POLYTOPE’s pupils dilate, just a fraction.
NEMATODE takes aim at the centre of her face, and fires again.
The change is not instant. Tears open in POLYTOPE’s face, filled with a mat of white strands, disintegrating and reforming. Her nose falls off and dissolves to nothing. The layers of muscle reweave themselves, and in the gaps, NEMATODE can see bones reshaping.
Some of the officials look away. Others lean in, eagerly.
The transformation finishes. Where POLYTOPE stood is, to all appearances, a perfect clone of NEMATODE.
“The VECTOR body answers directly to a will—usually, that of the host. But together, we have discovered that this will can be overridden. I have seized control, and POLYTOPE will now do absolutely anything I command.”
The Director steps out of the shadows, heels clicking on the floor. “I wish to test this claim, TWELVE DOCTRIX NEMATODE.”
NEMATODE nods. “Please, sir.”
“SIX AVIATRIX POLYTOPE. Break your arm, and keep it broken.”
Sorry, POLYTOPE. But she knew what she signed up for. NEMATODE watches POLYTOPE grab her own arm and sharply snap it. A shard of bone cuts skin and uniform. It does not heal.
Somewhere in POLYTOPE, there is a clone of NEMATODE’s mind, doing this to her. Or perhaps she’s willing to do it herself. NEMATODE has no idea what it’s like to receive the treatment.
The Director nods approvingly. “Remarkable. I wonder what else we can get her to do…”
Reaching OPHANIM’s chamber takes a few VECTOR leaps. CERULEAN glances back now and again, but CHIASMUS seems to have got the hang of her VECTOR engine.
CERULEAN can feel the excitement of the pillar girls. Now she’s become aware of them, she’s started to recognise where her thoughts and feelings end, and theirs begin. For her own part, she feels a little sick. The last time she was surrounded by this many VECTORs was at the training barracks, before her first deployment to hunt down CORAL. She doesn’t know the lines of power yet, or her place.
CORAL had never told her much about OPHANIM, beyond the promise to meet them. Some sort of council of senior rebel VECTORs, coordinating operations against the State? ‘More or less.’ was CORAL’s reply… ‘but not exactly.’
They reach a large, hemispherical metal pod, clinging like a pustule to the steeply-sloping wall of the valley. The antlered VECTOR alights on a small, rusted balcony, reinforced by a messy agglomeration of wood and rope. She nods to a couple of VECTORs seem to have been assigned guard duty, who rather hurriedly disentangle themselves and attempt to look as on-duty as possible when half their clothes are on the floor nearby. CERULEAN flashes them a quick smile—she knows this situation too well.
The door was clearly once articulated, but now it’s been replaced with some sort of chitinous panel not unlike the shell of a train. Antlers gestures for her to enter. The inside is dim, and CERULEAN finds herself ducking under thick sheafs of cables and tubes. What light there is comes from a large glass shell in the centre of the room. Inside it…
It takes her a second to work out what she’s seeing.
Floating in the tank, in a fluid very similar to what she saw in the vesicle, is an agglomeration of VECTORs. CERULEAN can see at least five, no, six, their flesh and muscles interwoven in rather biomechanically dubious ways, mostly meeting at the hips. Four pairs of eyes fix on her—one breaks into a smile, then another. One of them gives a little wave.
She feels her mouth open, a question forming… No. She forces herself to close it and stand like this is perfectly normal. No doubt OPHANIM will be judging her by her reaction.
CHIASMUS has no such compunctions. “Oh.” she says. “OK, what the fuck?”
Thankfully, OPHANIM takes no offence—at least one of her seems to find it hilarious. A distorted voice emerges from a bank of speakers below the tank.
“I know, I know… takes some getting used to. You must be… CERULEAN and CHIASMUS?”
CERULEAN nods. She almost does a State salute, but suppresses the urge, resulting in a kind of half-salute, half-scratch her eyebrow. “The famed OPHANIM, I presume.”
“Just so!” OPHANIM revolves slowly, bringing different parts to face her visitors. Her voice changes as the different sections speak, one after the other. “Welcome, both of you. You’ve had a real fucker of a journey, from the sounds of things.”
Briefly, the image of NEMATODE saying this sentence passes through CERULEAN’s mind. It’s inexplicably hilarious.
“So.” OPHANIM continues. “Let’s get the formalities out of the way. Yes, we are seven different VECTORs stuck together and floating in a tank. We can talk about it later. These buildings… the State built them, a long, long time ago, before it really was the State. Somehow this valley survived all those disasters, and we moved in! Questions?”
CHIASMUS nods slowly, her brow furrowing. “Yes.” she says. “About four thousand!”
“Fantastic!” says OPHANIM. “But right now, I am going to answer none of them.” CHIASMUS splutters. One of the OPHANIM bodies raises a placating hand. “All in good time, comrades. Now, I want to remind you I’m not in charge, you do not have to obey my orders, and if you want to leave, you can do so whenever you please.”
The antlered VECTOR sighs gently. “In practice we find we’re better off if we listen to them. OPHANIM’s been at this longer than any of us. Hence the, well…”
“I said, we’d talk about that later, CARIBOU!” OPHANIM twirls, a wheel of arms trailing the motion like some sort of jellyfish.
CERULEAN frowns. There’s defintely something off here. “What’s the great hurry?”
OPHANIM stops spinning, and all her eyes fix on CERULEAN. “Right. We are, regrettably, still fighting a war. The situation we find ourselves in is far from ideal. But I do have some very good news.”
POLYTOPE is not in control. She’s a passenger in her own body—not that she can recognise it as such, not anymore. It helps to think of it as someone else’s body, given all the things ‘she’ was just forced to do to it.
“It will be over soon.” She can feel NEMATODE’s mind—not the NEMATODE out there, the one putting on the show, but her NEMATODE. A NEMATODE who can follow her everywhere, who can watch even her thoughts.
The NEMATODE outside is obviously anxious. So’s the one inside. An anxious NEMATODE is a strict NEMATODE. POLYTOPE is glad that she’s not the one who has to puppeteer her body through these ‘motions’. She’d probably collapse and piss herself—but then the onlookers would love that.
“Are you satisfied with this demonstration, Director?” the NEMATODE outside says. “If so, I will order the disposal of the specimen.”
The NEMATODE inside radiates tension. All this effort, predicated on this one moment. Did they judge her desires correctly?
“Disposal, NEMATODE? Why, that is hardly necessary. Send her to my offices… I want to be sure the treatment lasts.”
The trap closes. Which means… no escape for POLYTOPE, either. Why doesn’t she feel sick? Of course… even that physical reaction is under NEMATODE’s control.
POLYTOPE stops thinking.
“You’ve found CORAL!?” It’s the only good news she can think of.
“More or less. We know where she was taken, and we also know that she’s escaped.”
CERULEAN’s knees feel weak. After so long underground, while CORAL suffered… she can only imagine what tortures. Of course she’d act on her own. She never needed CERULEAN.
Another facet of OPHANIM speaks up. “That’s the good news. But take a look at this.”
With a soft clunk, a monitor activates nearby. On it, CERULEAN can see an internal State bulletin, headed with the familiar symbols of the Arbitrator Corps and the VECTOR Dragoons. A description of CORAL follows… heterochromia? That doesn’t sound right.
“Note the orders.”
Observe, and report to… some opaque corner of the State hierarchy. Do not engage, do not attempt capture. “They’re afraid of her.” Sorry bastards. CERULEAN wants to laugh.
OPHANIM shakes her head, sadly. “They’re looking for us.” she says. “If our source hadn’t given us this, we’d welcome her back… and the next day they’d be all over us. So…”
Not after all this. CERULEAN feels a wave of heat, shrugs off CHIASMUS’s steadying hand.
“You’re just going to leave her out there. Just throw her away, after everything she’s been through for you!?”
The OPHANIM actually flinch, though they cover it well, darting up to the glass to look CERULEAN in the eye.
“No! Hold on, hold on, I haven’t finished. We need someone she trusts to make contact, somewhere other than here. Someone who can work out how they’re tracking her, and fix it!”
Another one speaks. “CERULEAN, we would never. Never! This is not the State.”
CERULEAN slumps, lets CHIASMUS hold her. A chance to play rescuer after all…
The nomads’ camp is as bright and rich as the steppe was grey and empty. After so long alone, CORAL can hardly take it in. She flinches at each movement and raised voice, almost snarls when she catches a question.
Mote, for their own part, seems oblivious to her anxiety. They lead their Strider in between the ribbed tents, large bugs of burden and smaller flocks of skittish striders. Every now and then, they see someone who gives them a nod or offers a drink at a fire, all speaking an unfamiliar language. CORAL counts that there must be dozens of herders, but the people are vastly outnumbered by their animals. To think, they were so near!
“It is an inauspicious place we found you, the village of the dead.” Mote says mildly, at one point. “A place we leave undisturbed, for respect.”
CORAL flicks her eyes over, trying to measure if there’s any offence there. But Mote is still smiling their good-humoured smile, already distracted by another family of herders. Finally, they reach a tent that is not surrounded by animals. Mote smiles to two bearded men deep in conversation at the entrance, and ties their strider to a post.
“My husbands.” they say simply. Then, they lift aside the flap for CORAL nad the three not-VECTOR girls to enter the tent. CORAL ducks inside, stepping into a wall of heat from the roaring fire at the centre. She steps aside, feet landing on a soft, striderskin floor.
Mote steps in behind. “I have sent word to the other families.” They gesture for CORAL to sit down on some of the scattered cushions. “They will be along shortly. My husbands and I shall have to prepare a hearty meal… tell me, what do you think of slow-roasted beetles?”
“Sounds fantastic.” CORAL is too hungry to think of something witty to say. “Honestly? At this point I’d eat my own arm.” Alas, VECTOR autocannibalism, while not fatal, tends to exacerbate, not relieve, the problems of hunger.
“Then I shall be back in but a moment!” Mote pours a drink of something into a series of beetle-shell cups, and passes them to each of the guests. “Please, rest. It will not be long.”
“I thought it best to apprise you of the situation.” OPHANIM says. “Let’s leave op planning to another time.” The room feels tense now, thanks to CERULEAN’s outburst. You hold her, trying to catch the eye of CARIBOU and let her know that everything is fine.
CARIBOU nods. “Now.” she says. “I heard someone had four thousand questions? Come, eat with us, and I’ll tell you all about it!”
She steps out of the machine room. You move to follow, but then—hold on. The OPHANIM are watching CORAL rather intently.
“You’re not the only one in there.” OPHANIM says, almost too quiet to hear.
But CERULEAN starts to laugh, a little ruefully. “Lay bare all my secrets, why don’t you?” she says. “How can you tell?”
OPHANIM cackles. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Another one pipes up. “Intuition. A pattern in your radiation. You get used to this sort of thing, when you’re fighting long enough.”
You look at CERULEAN, trying to form a question. What are they talking about? Is it like—
“It’s the pillar girls.” CERULEAN says, looking at you rather than OPHANIM. “When I woke them up, when they destroyed the roadway… well, seems like a few of them hitched a ride after.”
Well, why the hell not. You can’t think of anything to say. To think, you came here expecting answers… you didn’t even know the questions.
“So when we…” you begin. “When we, well, were fucking.” Of all the questions to begin with, CHIASMUS!
“Don’t worry. They shut themselves away.” CERULEAN says. “Like, how do I explain..? They come and go. I’m not sure how it works.”
“You know…” an OPHANIM says mildly. “If I was one of them… I’d want a body of my own. You’re young enough… it should be stable to split. I can help.”
Young enough. Given what CARIBOU said earlier… you look up at OPHANIM. “Is that why you’re all, well, together like that?” you say. “Does something happen when we regenerate too much?”
“Yes.” OPHANIM says simply. “The process is… unstable. Just a little bit. Being like this… we can hold a shape together. It helps.”
Well, fuck. So much for immortality.
“So we have some invisible clock, ticking down whenever we get cut. Lovely. Would have been great to know.” You feel a squeeze back from CERULEAN. Seems like a good time to sit on the floor.
“It’s not so clear. It’s not so much a biological cancer… more of a kind of trauma, damage to your self-image.” A second OPHANIM chimes in. “Some VECTORs go centuries, others start to break down within a year or two. Not even the Engineers know what the principal factor is. But it helps to be with others…”
“Right. Avoid trauma.” What a fucking joke. “So we go and start a war. The least traumatic thing that people can do.”
CERULEAN glances at you. “You think living in the State was any better?” And, damn it all, she has a point. Why were VECTORs created, anyway? Perhaps, at the end of this, some other VECTOR can experience a better world.
OPHANIM places her hand on the glass in an approximation of putting it on your shoulder. “That’s probably enough world-shattering revelations for now. Go, eat, rejoin your friends. Chat with CARIBOU. She’s lonelier than she looks, you know…”
You nod. Enough moping. A VECTOR is motion, is action, is change. And you know, it’s not so bad… even if you’re not immortal, you’re getting to live as you wanted.
Let that clock tick down. It will be worth it.
One of Mote’s husbands—Ray, CORAL thinks, though it might be Sclera—tells a joke, and the table’s laughter is so infectious that CORAL almost wants to join in, despite not understanding a word of it. The tent is so full of delicious smells and warmth and smiles that she almost suspects she’s passed out on the steppe somewhere, living in a fantasy.
Most of the nomads, it turns out, do not speak the language of the State, so Mote has been providing a running commentary. “Ah, that was a kind of wordplay, quite hard to translate…” they say of this one, a little ruefully. “Tell me, how are the beetles?”
“In all honesty,” CORAL says, “that was the best meal I’ve ever had. But I’ve never had roast beetles before, so I can’t say how it might compare.”
Mote chuckles. “Sclera will be delighted.” they say. “He’s rightly proud of his beetles. I will wrap some up when you leave.”
Ray says something, and Mote nods. Without their many layers of coloured cloth, they turned out to be much shorter than they appeared at first glance, walking on tall wooden shoes with a special catch for the stirrups of a strider. Their eye tattoos are drawn in a startingly steady hand, their intricacy appearing almost fractal. Now CORAL is able to think about something other than hunger, they actually look a little attractive.
“Let’s get to business then, CORAL. You have come from a terrible place, but might I perhaps venture to ask where you are going?”
“To OPHANIM.” CORAL says. “I have a State to destroy. But I can’t do it alone.”
Mote nods slowly, and says something in their own language. One of the other nomads laughs, gleefully.
“How lucky we are to have found you, then.” Mote says. “The State has been troubling us as well. They have built a town at the feet of the mountains, which poisons the river where it flows out onto the steppe. When our striders go to drink, they take in poisons. Soon, they can barely walk, and their meat brings sickness.”
Sounds like the State all right. “How terrible.” CORAL says. “You want it destroyed?”
Mote startles. “That’s… you would destroy it? Just like that?”
“Depends what’s guarding it.” CORAL shrugs, suddenly aware of her size compared to the rest of the people in the tent. “If they have another VECTOR, might be tricky. If not… sure, not a thing!” She’s never really massacred State civilians, at least not since blowing up the Furnace. But CORAL doesn’t particularly care to make the distinction anymore. If they’re holding her from OPHANIM and CERULEAN, if they’re between her and revenge on NEMATODE…
“Well.” Mote is clearly off-script at this point. “I was going to propose an act of sabotage, a warning if you will…”
CORAL shakes her head. What a noble sentiment. “This is the State. Right now, you’re a nuisance. Make yourself a threat, they’ll kill you. All of you. They’ll put you in that hole in the ground, and turn you into something like, well…” The other three girls. Is she really invoking them as rhetoric, as monsters to be feared? What is she becoming? It’s too late to un-say those words. “But if a rogue VECTOR, acting alone, goes on a rampage… well, they’ll be chasing me, but!” She grins as nastily as she can manage. “They’re doing that anyway.”
“If you would allow me to discuss this.” She’s disturbed Mote now, speaking so easily of massacring a town. CORAL turns to the three girls from NEMATODE’s lab. They’ve been skittish all evening, uncomfortable with the people and noise. Now, they don’t meet her gaze.
Not really VECTORs after all, are they? a quiet voice in her head whispers.
NEMATODE opens her eyes, lets out a shuddering breath. What she just did to POLYTOPE… her most loyal student, the one who didn’t flee when given the opportunity. And here is her punishment. Is it a mercy that POLYTOPE has not been equipped to transmit back to her, that she can’t tell what the Director is doing with her toy? The weapon would hardly work if NEMATODE had to directly command each of her new clone-slaves, but ignorance is a problem.
First, they must gather information. With her ‘weapon’, NEMATODE can seize the rebellion, turn it from an anarchic rabble into a machine poised to seize real control. The heaving, capsizing State can be righted, the civil war ended, and NEMATODE can make everything as it ought to have been from the start.
But first she has to deal with the Director. She must have a weakness… the obvious answer would be to shoot her with the new weapon, but NEMATODE can’t tell whether the system would work, and there’s no more room for failure. Someone had to get close enough to study her. POLYTOPE could see the logic, she volunteered… and everything had gone according to plan. Step by horrific step.
The weapon was approved, of course. Ultimately, whether or not it fit the Director’s philosophical speculation, its potential to tame the rebellion was too great. And now, unfortunately, she has to manufacture some more of the bullets. A lot more: ‘a magazine for every Arbitrator squad’.
“Are you all right, sir?” A technician, standing by. NEMATODE hasn’t bothered to learn her name.
“Yes. Let’s proceed.” NEMATODE holds out her hand, and the technician inserts it into the guillotine. She watches dispassionately as the knife comes down with a crunch of bone. The technician wipes up the blood, scoops the fingers into a dish, and passes them over to another technician sitting by the radiation machine.
NEMATODE’s fingers have already regenerated.
It’s going to be a long evening.