chapter ELEVENTH

CORAL runs. Her feet kiss the steppe for only a fraction of a second before she’s in the air again, leaping from ridge to boulder, gnarled tree to passing bug.

In the distance, the mountains loom invitingly. Somewhere at their base is her target.

She’d not been entirely surprised when, the night before, Mote had defused the tension by inviting her to bed with their husbands. The Witness had been quick to emphasise that this was not part of the terms of their alliance, but CORAL had not had to think long before accepting. It had been far too long.

Mote had insisted that she go and get washed up, and replace the filthy remains of her prison shift, before going anywhere near their bed. CORAL had been only too happy to oblige. Standing in the freezing stream, well-fed, in dark so thick to deny any prying eye… she felt almost whole. Like it was all her imagination.

Of Mote’s husbands, Sclera resembled CORAL downstairs, and Mote had clearly put some effort into learning how to get the most out of a dick. Their fingers and tongue did not feel much like CERULEAN’s, or even Rugosa, but not in a bad way.

It had been going splendidly, until Mote’s fingers happened to brush over the side of her face. Over ridges and bumps that she did not recognise as part of her face.

CORAL had frozen up, instantly back in that hole in the ground, the dispassionate eyes of the Investigator looking down. She couldn’t speak. Thankfully, Mote was attentive enough to notice. They were speaking—apologising, from the tone, but CORAL could not process language. She’d spent the rest of the night curled at the side of the bed, holding her arm where the cartridge used to be. Mote had fussed, but eventually she managed to ask them to just let her be.

This had better not happen again.

In the morning, she had done her best to apologise—the Witness waved it away, saying they understood entirely. Then, she’d asked Mote to bring her a mirror. It was murky, probably a piece of some State aircraft painstakingly polished up, but enough to see by.

Eyes different colours. Just like they said. And there, on the left side of her face, just in front of her ear, a strange spiral pattern.

She’d poked it. Hard, like a nail, or a snail’s shell. And warm to the touch, more so than her face at large. Around it, a fine web of cracks in her skin.

What had NEMATODE done to her!?

The three not-VECTOR girls, it had turned out, had opted to be the guests of another tent. CORAL had felt a sudden wave of guilt, to have parted without even a word, but when she arrived they seemed happy enough. Their host, who second-girl introduced as Choroid, had given them all new clothes, and even made some modifications to accomodate their unusual bodies. Third-girl’s dress was soaked in her own slime, but nobody seemed bothered. First girl was enjoying a breakfast of some kind of fried meat, bouncing and letting out the occasional trill.

Alas, second-girl’s insights were not entirely helpful. She was able to confirm that the spiral structure on first girl’s face was the same as CORAL’s, but none of the group had any idea what it did, or why NEMATODE should have introduced it.

Well, no matter. If anyone knew how to put her body back how it was supposed to be, it would surely be OPHANIM. Another reason to complete her mission as quickly as possible! CORAL had wished the three girls well, and headed back out.

The attack would be best carried out at night. Mote estimated that the target facility was half a day away for a strider—a pace CORAL could surely match. So she spent the rest of the morning making up for the night before with Mote, and then, with the sun high in the cold sky, she took her VECTOR engine and set off. Mote had promised that, if any of the nomads on the Steppe knew something about OPHANIM, they’d be able to tell CORAL once she returned.

Now she can actually run, she can actually see something of the steppe. She passes the shells of more dead villages—no time to investigate, but she can’t help but wonder. What happened here? Were these people distant ancestors of the Witnesses?

At last, she gets close enough to see her target. The sky is clear but for a few wisps of cloud streaming over the mountains, and the sun paints the landscape brilliant shades of orange, pink and deep, juicy purple. The settlement leans into the mountains like a burrowing worm: sheafs of pipes all flowing up into a tall chimney stack, belching an all-too-familiar column of oily smoke. Bright lines of electric light snapping on, guard towers and search lights.

It’s time.

NEMATODE had plenty of time. Though she couldn’t hear her words, CORAL’s intent was easy to predict as soon as she set out. A direct charge, straight for the mine.

But NEMATODE did not issue the evacuation order. She did not mobilise VECTORs. She did… almost nothing.

Priority personnel, yes. Engineers, senior Industrials and military—those too important to sacrifice to CORAL’s blades, those whose absence she wouldn’t notice. But if CORAL found the town empty, even she could work out NEMATODE’s plans. A few aircraft had come in and out, no doubt raising questions, but it would be easy to explain away. Nothing, as far as the town is concerned, is awry.

NEMATODE watches through CORAL’s eye as she darts towards the unsuspecting town. For now, she can only witness. Later, there will be time for reckonings… she can put the sword to these nomads herself, and impose a lasting order on the steppe. But only once the threat of OPHANIM, and all of her ilk, is put down.

For now, she need only put the plan into action.

It has been another slow day. The sun rose and fell; the steppe is once against in darkness. The daytime Industrials have filed back to their dormitories, the night crew shuffling out to replace them. Provisions are adequate; arbitrators reporting nothing but a few drunks, and no further trouble from the natives.

FIVE LOGISTICAL ANTEATER finishes his report. Last is his supervisor’s suggestion to prohibit alcohol. ANTEATER pens a quick counterproposal: designate some sites to keep it in the open, where it can be easily monitored, and managed. The mine’s efficiency is well within target bounds. No need to waste resources on overpolicing.

Irritatingly, ANTEATER’s supervisor is gone, leading to a steadily growing stack of reports with nowhere to end up. Apparently some urgent meeting had been announced at the last minute. That military nonsense down south, no doubt. ANTEATER doesn’t really know what’s happening out there, but the recent uptick in military aircraft stopping by to refuel suggests that some sort of major exercise is underway.

No matter. ANTEATER has one responsibility: making the mine run as efficiently as possible, to (if he will allow himself just a little poetry) slurp up the riches of the Earth into the hungry belly of the State. What they do with the materials is not his concern. In fact he’s not even sure what it is they’re mining. He’s proud, anyway. Under his supervision, this town is the picture of efficiency: the State in miniature. A civilised foothold on the unruly steppe.

Outside the window, one of the searchlights blinks off. ANTEATER sighs, and stands up from his desk to find the printer for maintenance reports. Some arbitrator will shuffle in before long, sheepishly trying to cover up whatever tedious hijinks their boredom has produced. ANTEATER will tut, and give them the form, and dispatch someone to fetch a new searchlight from the stores. Before long, they’ll break something else.

So it goes.

ANTEATER almost wishes the terrorists would attack, just to give them all something to do.

CORAL comes in from a high angle, trailing her screaming, stolen LANCE. The air snatches at her Witness clothes—a strangely different sensation to having half her body bare, but not unwelcome. The impending violence tastes like metal, like electricity.

If the guards at the watchtower hear her coming, they do not react remotely fast enough. She punches through the tower and out the other side, crumpling the thin walls and leaving the entire structure canting and then collapsing with a shriek of metal. Her momentum carries her over a narrow street behind the wall, clogged with pipes and lit by fizzing blue lights. She lands lightly on a domed roof, springs back up, accelerates again under the power of the VECTOR engine.

The town is laid out in concentric rings, the roofs rising in tiers towards the central work hub. CORAL is happy to kill NEMATODE’s little minions, but she has no interest in cutting down everyone in the town, one by one. Destroy the central facility, render the buildings uninhabitable, and the town will have no more reason to exist. The survivors can go where they will. One more ghost town on the steppe.

So CORAL runs, and cuts. Every obstinate piece of machinery, every creaking pipe, anything she can break open with a BLADE or LANCE. Electricity arcs behind her; the leaking pipes catch light. CORAL climbs, and behind her, the fire spreads, a bright chevron parting the town as she punches towards the centre.

The alarms start just as she reaches the central tower. The wall is almost vertical, but CORAL keeps running, transitioning smoothly into the climb and letting momentum carry her up, up… up.

If ANTEATER had been sitting at his desk, he would have died the instant CORAL burst in through the window, pinned to his chair by a thousand glass needles. As it is, he is merely knocked flat as a sheet of heat and noise destroys the window, her blurry silhouette at its heart.

The lights in the room go out. All he can see is the glitter of the fire on glass dust. His other senses more than make up for it: the smoke rapidly filling the room, stealing the air from his lungs; the computers bursting open to let their biological components shrivel in the air, adding a further stench to the burning oil; a hot trickle as his bladder gives way…

He can’t hear the VECTOR. There’s nothing he can do—he can’t think, just run. Into the heart of the mine. There’s a protocol for fires… but what is it!? Find the soldiers. They’ll know what to do.

ANTEATER pulls himself up, falls again, burns his hand on something corrosive from inside a computer. Why hasn’t she killed him? He struggles back up and makes for the door.

CORAL glances around the room, watching the computers die. Her skin is healing—she pulls out a shard of glass that got stuck and tosses it aside.

She’s feeling fantastic. NEMATODE had tried to make her powerless, but here she is, tearing the State like it’s paper! Has she ever been so alive?

This room—a pustule, attached to the side of the vast conical chimney at the heart of this town—seems to have been an office. Her landing has cracked the shells of computers and sent a cloud of papers onto every surface. Sparks drift in from the window behind her, finding ready kindling.

There—a movement. A young man in a sharp, neat, uniform, slipping in a puddle of his own piss… CHIASMUS could probably tell her exactly what it signifies, but all she gets is ‘mildy important’.

Where’s he going to run?

The functionary reaches the door, fingers fumbling at the code dial. On the sixth try, he gets it. From the ceiling, CORAL watches him heave the door open and stagger into an unlit corridor.

A quick leap, and she’s behind him again. The door clicks shut behind, and suddenly there is no firelight.

Her eyes adjust quickly to the emergency lighting. She watches the State functionary stumble along the corridor, counting doors. At last, he finds the one he wants, and dials in one more code. Beyond, a dingy metal stairwell, winding round the heart of the chimney…

ANTEATER has never seen the inside of the mine, but somewhere there will be workers, and guards, and a cool underground space that isn’t on the verge of collapse. Anywhere is better than out there.

He dare not take the lift. The emergency stairway is, thankfully, lit by a dim lamp even when the power’s failing. Down. Two, three stairs at a time. Push off the handrail. Down.

After two flights, he’s already exhausted. His muscles seize up, at once too hot and too cold. Desperately, he gulps in air. It’s not enough. His mouth is full of phlegm.

He doubles over, spitting onto the stairwell. He’s going to die here. That thing will come, and kill him on an empty stairwell, unable to breath and soaked in piss and spit and snot. Some last stand.

“So, is that it?”

The voice comes out of the dark. He swivels. There she is, hanging easily from the flight above him… the terrorist he wished for.

ANTEATER tries to start running again. He manages all of three steps.

“Look, take it slow. You’re no help if you pass out.” Her voice is surprisingly kind, almost bored. “Why don’t you tell me where you’re running? Like, what’s all this for, anyway? Is there a control room somewhere? A ‘make everything explode’ button to save me some time?”

She doesn’t even know what she’s destroying. All his life’s work, the masterpiece of cooperation and control, and this woman just wandered over and smashed it. He tries to snarl and shout at her, but only manages a slightly contemptuous grunt.

“Look, if you’re just gonna lie there, I’ll go ask someone else. But put it this way… this building’s exploding, one way or another. But if you want to, you know, save some lives and all that… help me out here and I’ll be generous!” She grins.

He manages to spit out some words. “I made this. This mine… it’s my mine. Not. Telling. You. Shi-“

She cuts him off. “Oh! Someone really important! So what are you mining, then?”

He did wonder. There was a point where his wish to know what had dragged them all out to this place had almost soured him on the whole project. But he squashed it down, and now, he can see the logic. Compartmentalise. Need to know…

The VECTOR terrorist peers at him. She raises an eyebrow… “Oh, you don’t know! Incredible. You know… we could find out.”

CORAL isn’t entirely sure why she’s bothering. The functionary doesn’t have a rebellious bone in his body. Perhaps that’s what makes him interesting… she wants him to watch as his horrible little project comes to ruin.

He has stopped wriggling, letting CORAL carry him like a sack of larvae. She hops down the gap at the side of the stairwell. Beside her, the hot plating of the inner chimney rushes past…

She lands lightly, swinging herself back onto the platform. By her reckoning, they’re already underground. The chimney passes below, to some vast reaction chamber. It doesn’t resemble a FURNACE—what are they doing here?

The functionary seems disinclined to open any more doors, so CORAL calls up a BLADE, and tears the metal open. It takes a few kicks to get it to bend properly. She enters a round tunnel, walls thickly knotted with pipes. No sign of pillar girl material… how extravagant!

Someone is shouting. CORAL runs towards the voices, tracing an arc around the central column.

She emerges in a broad, tall chamber, fluted towards the ceiling. Pipes spread radially across the floor, and flow up the walls to enter the main chimney. At the centre…

The functionary stirs under her arm, peering about to get a better look. “So that’s what we’re mining. I never would… have dreamed.”

At the centre of the room is a cylinder of compacted earth, supported by a metal cage. Poking out of it, here and there, are arms, legs, ribcages… Over the height of the column, a range of decay states, some layers bony, others dessicated and shrivelled flesh. A clean section of a mass grave.

“OK.” CORAL stares, fascinated and repulsed. “What the fuck is going on?”

Her entrance has not gone unnoticed. A stream of Industrials are flocking out of the room, and between them, CORAL can spot the helmets of arbitrators hesitantly poking into the room. She drops the functionary, unceremoniously, and springs up onto the top of the column of soil. Up close, she can see the pipes run deep inside, from every direction—and that something inside is glittering.

An arbitrator fires a burst, the bullets flying wide. Irrelevant. She kneels down… she should probably set about destroying everything in sight, but she’s never seen the State use a machine like this, even when she was amidst the furnaces…

The dead bodies seem to be transforming. Tiny metal threads, branching again and again…

Even this close, the bodies are too decayed to recognise who these people were, but she can’t shake the feeling that they’re related to the ones in the dead village she passed through. And perhaps the ancestors of the Witnesses…

Need to know. ANTEATER groans, a valve having dug in right under his ribcage. Need to know, need to know.

He hears footsteps approach. With some effort, he flips himself over to see a familiar-looking black dress. His colleague, the Engineer… Chrysopoeia, who joined this project just one month ago. On her head are the four colours, indicating (he recalls) seniority among her kind.

“I did wonder why they told me to evacuate.” she says. ANTEATER groans; she glances down. “Oh, ANTEATER. You’re not supposed to know about this place.”

Up ahead, the arbitrators run into the room, firing short bursts at the VECTOR terrorist. She leaps gracefully from the stack of bodies, and lands sword-first on one of the arbitrators. The unfortunate target collapses, spraying blood. A few of the others break, and flee the room; the rest gland whatever drugs they need, and open fire. The gunfire echoes through the chamber, booming and receding.

ANTEATER does not stand up, afraid to catch a stray bullet. He stares at the engineer without comprehension. Chrysopoeia seems untouched by the chaos, the ash and piss and blood that has characterised this day. Awkwardly, he gestures at the scene, hoping the engineer will indulge him with an explanation.

“Oh, the experiment? This is our pilot project, ANTEATER… I have to say you have made it very easy to work here.” Despite the circumstances, ANTEATER almost feels proud. The VECTOR cuts down three more soldiers, and Chrysopoeia settles herself down on one of the larger pipes.

“So why do we have a mass grave in the forge? Perhaps you’ve worked it out…”

ANTEATER shakes his head. “Afraid not, Lady Engineer.”

“Hm. Well…” she continues. “What is the steppe known for, apart from resisting the rule of the State?”

“Well, ma’am… certainly not an abundance of mineral resources.” ANTEATER dimly recalls his assignment, and his relief when the mine turned out to be a thriving operation and not the backwater he’d feared. Yet the products of the mine were, unambiguously, metallic in nature. He could discern that much. Fuel for unproductive curiosity.

The Engineer watches him silently. So ANTEATER shrugs, and tries to guess. “Emptiness? Distance from civilian populations? Privacy?” That the Engineer can so calmly discuss economics and engineering, while above her their world burns to ashes, and in front of her a mass-murder is playing out, is beyond his ability to grasp. Just go along…

“Hmm. Relevant, perhaps, but not the real reason. Consider, ANTEATER…” The Engineer’s voice is almost too soft to hear over the gunfight. “What does the State have in abundance? Flesh. What does the State need? Concrete, iron, energy. What is the State’s answer? Simple: all things can be exchanged, should you know the means.” She springs to her feet, apparently caught up in the drama. “Thence our Art! Thence, all the ingenious creations of my forebears: our furnaces, our infrastructurals. Let nature’s profligacy be recycled, and put to use!” Chrysopoeia gestures, expansively, at vast machinery all around.

She swivels, turning back to face ANTEATER. “But we never figured out how to transmute flesh into metal. Not until now. Turns out, we just needed the right feedstock.”

It clicks into place. What does the steppe have in abundance? The dead of past eras, wastefully discarded. Once, the people here were settled, civilised… then came war, and they renounced it all. So the story goes.

“So you turn bodies into metal? That’s our project?”

“Delightful, isn’t it? It’s like we’re putting their ghosts to work. It’s worked so much better than I hoped…”

The last of the arbitrators dies on the VECTOR’s sword. Chrysopoeia stands up, and starts hopping from pipe to pipe, approaching the VECTOR with her hands raised.

She glances back. “Good luck, ANTEATER. You remind me of my son, you know. With a bit of luck, I’m about to save everything.”

Better her than ANTEATER. He makes for the door.

CORAL dismisses her BLADE, causing the impaled arbitrator to slump onto the body of his comrade. She swivels, judging distances… from here, a LANCE charge straight at the grave-column would probably have enough energy to collapse it, scattering its grisly contents all over the room. A defilement? She’s not sure… probably better than whatever the State is doing.

Before she can launch, the Engineer appears, running towards her with her hands wide. Well, now. Here’s one unarmed opponent who CORAL will have no compunctions about killing.

“CORAL, I presume?” The Engineer shouts. “You want to find OPHANIM, right? Let me help!”

Don’t rise to it. Don’t answer her. Just kill her.

But CORAL finds herself laughing. “If you knew where to find her, you wouldn’t waste time talking.”

That was rising to it! CORAL forces herself not to wait for a reply. She kicks her LANCE into full thrust, and cuts across the room with enough force to split the pipes under her feet. She punches through the metal cage, and then comes to an abrupt halt as her LANCE hits something a lot sturdier than dirt and bone.

Cursing, CORAL vanishes the LANCE. She stares at the hole she’s made… inside, the metal needles knit together into a tight mass, like the roots of a tree. A huge slug of iron, statue-fossils wrapped in corpse flesh. One LANCE charge won’t be enough. She needs a better plan… what’s in those pipes?

Chrysopoeia walks up behind her, clapping slowly. “You VECTORs… so headstrong! You think you can comb the mountains on your own? Do you even know where you are?”

CORAL swivels to face her. The Engineer is smiling, too widely. It’s less disarming and more of a terrifying smirk.

“And you’d help me? Even as I destroy your toys?” There’s only one reason for an Engineer Rubedo to be down here. “What could possibly be in it for you?”

“It’s simple.” The Engineer has closed the gap now, standing on a larger pipe so she can look CORAL straight in the eye. “My…” The Engineer takes a breath. “…daughter defected. She’s on your lot’s side. And believe it or not, some things are more important than politics.”

An Engineer whose daughter defected… No. It can’t be. “You’re Cirrina? CHIASMUS’s mother? I thought she said you were a Citrinitas, not a Rubedo.”

“‘CHIASMUS’… of course.” The Engineer is lost in thought for a moment, then snaps to. “Oh! Well, I was promoted when I took this assignment.”

That could mean a lot of things. CORAL steps out from between Cirrina and the stack of corpses. She summons a BLADE, and slashes one of the pipes. Something oily dribbles out. Flammable, probably, but not enough to melt iron.

“You’re saying you want me to fly a State aircraft straight to OPHANIM? Should I paint the missile target on her myself?”

“We’ll take my personal craft. Fly low to avoid radar. Land somewhere else, walk the rest of the way. Whatever you think is needed.”

“Hmm.” CORAL looks closely at the Engineer. She flicks her BLADE up and levels it between them. “Prove something to me. I need a reason to trust you.”

“Oh?” The Engineer still doesn’t flinch. How do they train them? Even the soldiers are more skittish. “And what would you have me do?”

“Destroy this.” CORAL gestures at the whole machine. “This… whatever monstrosity you’re performing here. Blow it all up. Sink it into the ground. Make it so nobody can use this corpse eater machine, ever again.”

“It’s a pilot project to address our… to address the State’s metal deficiency. You know it won’t set them back much, right? There are offsite plans, other testbeds. My predecessor was the expert.”

CORAL shrugs. “One thing at a time. Maybe there won’t be a State, by the time they’d build the next one.”

Cirrina takes a deep breath. “I see. So that’s what it takes to see my… daughter? Blowing up this town?”

CORAL’s smile is without humour. “That’s what it takes.”

Cirrina takes another breath. She considers. And she answers:

“Very well.”

The control room was supposed to be guarded, but the guards abandoned their posts. Cirrina doesn’t blame them. Seeing what a VECTOR can do up close, it’s all she can do to maintain that composure. But retain it she must. NEMATODE is depending on her. And so is Jermaine, whether or not he realises it.

As she reaches the console, the blasphemy of her actions becomes almost too much to bear. But Engineering requires a weighing of evils by its nature. NEMATODE promised to exonerate her of all wrongdoing, anything to sell the ruse and bring them closer to OPHANIM. Should this VECTOR cancer be left unchecked, the loss of one such town would be the least of the State’s problems. It’s already far too close to metastasis.

So Cirrina does as she is bid. Eight crucibles, each one steadily transforming dead flesh into fresh, living metal. A reaction that must be carefully controlled, lest its waste products corrupt the output. A masterpiece of Engineering, a delicate balancing act. Her predecessor’s pride and joy.

And it comes apart all so easily.

She overrides security warning after security warning. Withdraws this reactant, closes this output valve. One by one, she compromises each crucible, and lets the rot begin.

CORAL watches the screen over her shoulder, eyes sparkling with fascination. “So what have you done? I can see it’s sort of like a Furnace, but these formulae? That’s new.”

Cirrina despises her all the more. Nothing so evil has a right to the noble curiosity. But she has to play along. “Oh, you know a little of the Art…” she says. How could she forget? NEMATODE had told her how CORAL had destroyed her own mother’s furnace, incinerating half a city in a radioactive flash. Just to see it burn.

“I know enough.”

“Then it is simple enough to explain. This transmutation is reversible. It takes a great deal of coaxing to make flesh become iron, and it’s always in balance with its opposite.”

“And so you’ve had it reverse…”

“Just so. Would you care to see?”

The smell is overwhelming, even before she reaches the crucible chamber. CORAL has smelled death before, in many different flavours, but never something like this.

She expected the pipes and walls to turn into something like skin, or meat. She did not expect them to turn into human bodies, packed tightly, layer upon layer.

CORAL stares. Her eyes glide over the growing mass of corpses, failing to find purchase. No, they’re not quite right: some tiny, some enormous, some with too many limbs, twisted spines, inappropriate symmetries, faces in places that shouldn’t have faces. The forms of machines disappear, lost in the necrotic fractal. Which ones were real humans and which the product of the process is already impossible to say.

The boundary reaches an arbitrator, and the metal buckles on his uniform turn into a braided chain of tiny headless people. His gun gains a new set of teeth.

And… And. CORAL’s VECTOR senses let her see something else. The radiation is intense—‘inside of the furnace’ intense. Just like with Rugosa. She flinches away.

This is what she wanted, right?

Behind her, Cirrina speaks in a strained voice. “I suggest we don’t remain here long. The structural integrity of this facility is not likely to hold…” Trying so hard to sound dispassionate, even faced with this…

The corpses are already dessicating and decaying, though there can surely be no bacteria who act so quickly. A ceiling panel falls down, creating a sick ‘plop’. Where it lands, it creates a new island of bony arms and emaciated ribs.

No more time for words. CORAL grabs the Engineer and lifts her up. “Which way?” she hisses. Cirrina replies with curt directions, and CORAL runs.

A moment later, she’s back in the stairwell, bounding up in a few quick leaps. Below her, metal groans and gives way. The stench is almost thick enough to cut.

She won’t look back.

Another few turns to open air. She carves the door open with her BLADE and flings herself out, gasping in night air that, however laden with ash, at least does not carry that smell.

The engineer vomits, a sick, wet sound. No time to check on her. CORAL’s fire is still burning, and soon it will have a great deal more fuel. She springs up, shifts Cirrina over her shoulder, and dashes for the airfield.

Most of the landing pads are empty. One squat grey craft remains, a simple design of swept wings and a bulbous cockpit. Cirrina doesn’t need to point it out. CORAL doesn’t stop running, races down the runway, skids to a halt in front of the aircraft.

Behind her, a groan of metal like the belch of a giant. CORAL glances back just long enough to see a section of the huge chimney slump and disappear into its own oily smoke.

She drops off the engineer. Cirrina dusts herself off primly, wipes away the vomit, then draws a silver cylinder from her sleeve and inserts it into the lock. “My personal aircraft.” she says, her voice still weak. “A perk of the job… alas, aeronauticals is not my field, so this is mostly off-the-shelf.”

CORAL climbs in after her. The cockpit is cramped, filled with pipes and cables. In the centre is a kind of glass shell… Cirrina taps on it, and suddenly a face appears in the murk behind. “My pilot, at least, is custom… my colleague Theosebeia made him. Get us out of here if you will, Zygo?”

The door closes of its own accord. Straps abruptly emerge from the seats. CORAL watches Cirrina strap herself in, and pass a kiss on her fingers to the picture at the centre of the control panel.

So that’s CHIASMUS’s other mother, Eledone. Not much resemblance. Most likely how she wanted it.

CORAL does not like this at all.

She slumps in her seat, turns her head to the Engineer. “Before we go to the mountains… I have an appointment to keep. Information to help us get started. Can you take us south?”

Cirrina raises an eyebrow, but does not object. She passes the instructions to ‘Zygo’, and the craft catapults itself into the air, straight upwards. The town falls away, a circle of speckled fire… and with a massive ‘whump’, the central furnace gives way as its foundations dissolve.

CORAL can almost imagine she can already see the burning not-human corpses. Not yet, right? Surely not yet.

The jet turns away, and the image is gone. In one day, she’s killed… how many people? Nobody will ever know.

And she’s barely begun. Let NEMATODE witness this horror. Let her know what’s coming…

ANTEATER sits in the holding cell, eyes pointedly open, still not entirely sure he’s alive. He dare not close them. The images will come, again… the burning, melting corpses, corpses that never lived; the souls of metal, made flesh.

Horrifying, yes? But that’s not why he’s afraid. Something about them is… enticing.

The Investigator closes her pen with a snap. “Thank you, ANTEATER. A very thorough account. And despite all that… you want to become an Engineer?”

The meal is cleared away. CERULEAN nuzzles against you, calmer now than she has been in months. And honestly… you’re feeling pretty good too. Listening to these new VECTORs talk, feeling almost like you belong.


Then, CARIBOU runs over, not hiding her deep worry. With a few quiet words, she pulls you and CERULEAN aside, and there you see all your new friends from the train—Viv, Nauts, the kids. Not to mention a few VECTORs you don’t know.

CARIBOU pulls out a hand terminal, a newsreel playing fuzzily on its tiny screen. “You’re going to want to see this.” she says. “It’s about CORAL.”