chapter TWELFTH

Even in the sky, the mountains loom. The sun has almost made its escape, and in its wake, the valleys have been painted all sorts of delicious blues and purples. Lakes and streams gleam golden as they snatch at it, but always it slips away.

The State’s hold on the steppe may be tenuous, but it is in the mountains that they failed altogether. Not that they didn’t try! The steep, misty forests are littered with the shells of ruined colonisation projects, feral settlements whose inhabitants, if they survived, would no longer be counted as “human”. Some, they say, date from even before the Harsh Century.

CORAL never much cared for these ruins—if they’re a mememto mori, the State hasn’t bothered to notice. She enjoys the view now, though. Her eyes drift over each funny, moss-encrusted shape, her mind quietly playing a game of identification.

If this is where the rebels are, no wonder the enemy can’t find them.

It’s taken CORAL most of a week to find a comfortable spot to sit outside the aircraft. At first, she had to pin herself against the metal with the force of her VECTOR engine, a dragonfly on some collector’s wall. Over time, she got used to the wind… the comforting pressure of it, the way it seeped into her borrowed clothes. Now, she stands brazenly on the nose of the aircraft, striking a pose for some invisible audience.

Of course, it was a ridiculous idea from the start. A foot wrong, and she’d be torn away and flung behind the aircraft, and Cirrina would have to waste precious fuel and time swooping back to grab her. The Engineer still whined about aerodynamics whenever CORAL poked her head back into the cockpit.

But this was just more motivation to do it.

Oh, yes. Fuck Cirrina! Fuck her little ‘I think I’m so subtle’ glances of disgust, or worse, of skin-flaying clinical study. Fuck the way she hammers on the glass column containing ‘Zygo’, the cruel jokes she makes about the mute pilot. Fuck the slight frown she can’t avoid showing whenever CORAL names CHIASMUS.

And then there’s the questions! The endless questions: ‘have you ever lost memories from an injury?’; ‘why are your eyes different colours?’; ‘if I cut you perfectly in half, straight down the middle, which half would regenerate?’… this last one CORAL had answered by offering to treat Cirrina as a control for the experiment, which earned her all of five minutes of silence.

Cirrina is not at the top of CORAL’s list—the weeks of outright torture by NEMATODE and the rest gives her plenty of competition!—but she’s trying very hard to climb it. If CORAL had the first idea about operating the aircraft, the Engineer would already be skewered on a mountaintop somewhere.

No doubt Cirrina feels much the same, of course.

After Mote passed on their information—the nomads breaking camp with quiet urgency, far from the festive atmosphere the night before, now and then casting glances at the iron-red plume on the horizon and Cirrina’s aircraft, still poised ready to spring back into the sky—the Engineer had put on her best semblance of airy sweetness, telling CORAL it would just be so convenient to know their final destination, the navigation computer could simply solve…

It was painfully obvious, and she gave up pretty quickly. CORAL didn’t let her guard down. The Engineer was no master spy, but she was sharp enough.

Right now, the secret rendezvous was the only leverage CORAL had. As painful as it was to delay things further, CORAL took them on a roundabout route, and spent the rest of the time outside. CERULEAN’s absence was an unexpectedly painful hole in her chest, but she filled it a little by going over the stories she’d tell.

It was eight days since she took off when the first enemy aircraft appeared on the horizon.

Mote is at the pit, against the best advice of, well, just about everyone.

The Witnesses had, by now, moved their herds far away in the opposite direction. No longer in sight.

The chaos of their departure still rang in Mote’s ears. On the one hand, they remembered each shouted recrimination—religious, practical even ethical in nature. The Witnesses’ role was to observe, not intervene; the State would recognise their role in the attack and come down, hard; the mass destruction they had caused could not be forgiven. And on the other hand, there were the warhawks: the ones who hailed Mote as a hero, through whom the enemy’s impregnable fortress had suddenly been proven thoroughly pregnable. The ones who asked Mote to reach out once more to CORAL, so she could train them, or finish the job.

Mote found themselves hating both sides equally. It was a strange feeling, to be so alienated. But at least there was an out: blood had been spilled on the steppe once again, and that meant someone would have to commit the image to memory, and work it into verse.

Thus, Mote had volunteered.

That caused even more protest: Mote instigated the terrible deeds, how could they claim to witness them? But Mote’s household held many favours, and they called in all of them; all to expel Mote and their husbands from the warmth of herds and companions, all to stare at a pit full of corpses.

No, worse than that. A pit made of corpses: somehow the iron shell of the facility was gone completely, and in its place, grey ash in the unmistakeable shape of bones… surely more bodies than the State held entire, their forms blending into mere texture. It would be impossible to count them, let alone identify the fallen. A perfect circle of death, in the shadow of the mountains.

Mote had not needed help to do the ritual purging, that night they arrived.

The words would not come. Ray had to lead the first night of remembrance, to Mote’s shame. The second day it was no easier. Even when each day’s ritual was done, Mote remained on that small hill, staring at the unchanging circle, as the distant minions of the State scurried down into the pit to take tentative measurements.

Now, it’s the third day, and Mote finally finds the words.

“O! Nameless dead,” they begin, “we carry you forwards—” and then fate intervenes with a roar: before they can continue, a wedge of State aircraft slams across the sky towards the mountains.

The Air Superior. TWELVE FALKNER PARALLEL, Para to her friends.

NEMATODE was not her friend.

The FALKNER unit’s arrival came unannounced, and NEMATODE’s first inkling of their presence came from the cacophony of VTOL engines above the facility. They’d come in force. Every camera NEMATODE could access showed the same thing: all kinds of aircraft squatting at odd angles, planes surrounded by air crews, semi-living drones jostling for space, flocks of loiter missiles circling overhead.

Well, that was one matter. In other circumstances, NEMATODE would be delighted to have such incredible, modern weapons at her disposal. But the radar showed something else: a wing of aircraft slicing a thin line across the Steppe, hot in pursuit of Cirrina and the asset.

Now, NEMATODE faced their leader.

She had, for some reason, expected the Superior to be tall and thin, hollow-boned like a bird. The opposite was true: she was short, barely up to NEMATODE’s waist, all stocky muscle. The presence she left in a room, on the other hand, was enormous. Even NEMATODE couldn’t get that wave of respectful silence when she entered the command centre.

NEMATODE got straight to the point. “Recall those aircraft, PARALLEL.”

“Oh?” The pilot stretched and rolled her shoulders, letting tense silence fill the room. Nothing but held breaths and the tense grinding of computers. “Am I obliged to congratulate you on a promotion… THIRTEEN DOCTRIX NEMATODE? Maybe even FOURTEEN?”

NEMATODE felt her mouth forming a line. Before she could think of an answer that would not embarass her, PARALLEL continued.

“No? And yet here you are, presuming to give me orders!” Abruptly, she spun round, coattails flying behind her, and pointed up at NEMATODE—not in the least intimidated by the VECTOR.

“That aircraft…” NEMATODE hissed, ignoring the jab, “is an intelligence asset, on a long-term operation. Approved by the Directorate. It could end the rebellion. You’re risking everything I’ve… we’ve worked for.”

PARALLEL yawns. Yawns! “Yes, yes, NEMATODE, I know all about you and the Director’s grand plan to… what was it… let the terrorist go, offer her valuable infrastructure on a silver platter, then sit on your hands while she flits about in the mountains? Perhaps these grand plans of yours go over my head…”—she gestures at NEMATODE’s comparative height, provoking a snicker from some distant corner, “…but I think I know when someone’s lost control and trying to cover their ass!

Politics, as ever. Damn it, she’s so close. NEMATODE rejects several plans, very quickly. It would be trivial to kill PARALLEL, but the cost would be another matter. NEMATODE’s own coup plans are slowly regrowing, but she had not meant to move until rebel VECTORs were transformed by her new flesh bullets into a nice little pet army.

She closes her eyes, takes a breath, and connects to the shard of her self living in POLYTOPE… what is the Director doing? Whatever it is, POLYTOPE can’t see.

“So is this a coup,” she says, levelly, “or do you have your own patron, PARALLEL?”

PARALLEL sighs. “Do I need a ‘patron’ to destroy enemies of the State?” NEMATODE attempts to interject, but PARALLEL barrels on. “But if you must know, the Central Government is very concerned about what’s happening in this facility. I am sad to say, but defects are suspected in your esteemed Director. There’s a writ on the main desk there, if you care about such things.” She smiles with seemingly genuine delight. “And I have to say, it rather seems they’re right. Care to convince me otherwise?”

NEMATODE strides over to the desk in three quick steps and picks up the writ. The seals all seem to be alive and well, and the commands are clear enough: PARALLEL acts with the authority of the Central Government, and has the right to supersede any and all of the Director’s orders if given cause, until she feels that the State’s investments in the steppe facility, etc. etc. Three living seals, beetle-like masses each branded a simple line figure: a hexagon, two triangles like an hourglass, and a broken slash. Each one warm with its characteristic radiation. NEMATODE can faintly sense their cilia, extending throughout the document to detect any modification.

Though NEMATODE has only encountered the one Director, she has a vague inkling of the rest of the government’s structure. Each icon represents not an individual, but a chamber: one of the various organs of the Central Government. The chambers can instantiate members as needed, and when their purpose is fulfilled, each is reabsorbed into their whole. And now the Hexagon was reclaiming its own.

“Satisfied?” The Air Superior has crossed her arms. “Whatever she’s been letting you get away with, you nymphomaniac bitch of a failed experiment, it’s over now. You start showing us some results, or…” her smile turns into an enormous grin, “this waste of a facility is liquidated.”

Oh, you overconfident fool. NEMATODE does not laugh, but simply replaces the writ on the table. A sudden calm has filled her. “So that’s how it is. Very well, “”acting Director” PARALLEL. What would convince you to allow this operation to complete?”

“Well. I’m glad you’re not going to waste any more time. If you can answer my questions, I will give the order—then, and only then! So talk quickly, NEMATODE… I don’t think she has long.”

Cirrina is shouting something—CORAL does not particularly care what. She shoves her hand over the Engineer’s mouth, gets bitten, ignores it.

“I can keep their missiles off us, for a while.” she says. “But you need to land. Cut the engine and glide, for as long as it takes. These coordinates—” she recites them, a ridge over from the rendezvous point Mote gave her, swallowing the fear “—and I’ll walk you the rest of the way. Can you do that?”

She lets the engineer speak. Cirrina glares at her furiously, starts to utter an unconscionable slur… and then calms herself down, very suddenly. “I haven’t suddenly forgotten how to fly. Go do your somersaults, and if there’s anything left of you—“

CORAL doesn’t bother to let her finish.

She springs out the aircraft hatch, letting it flap in the wind, just as the first enemy aircraft blossoms into a flower of contrails. The last ray of the sun catches them, turning the oily smoke into a full rainbow of colours. And then they converge.

They meet CORAL’s head-on charge, riding a wave of giddy delight like a rocket. Missiles! She’s always wanted to try…

Her flare of radiation should catch all the sensors in sight. She leads with her LANCE, though she doesn’t need to hit them—the proximity sensors set off explosions the instant she gets near, lacerating her body with shrapnel and heat. For a fraction of a second, she is ragged muscles on a skeleton, and then it’s already growing back, and the other missiles are drifting all around her, spinning and twisting to come back to bear.

That one seems likely. CORAL flings her arm out, casting her BLADE forward with accuracy she would never even boast of possessing, but here, at a time like this, her nerves are on fire and she has it, she has all the skill she needs—

—the BLADE hits the missile’s sensorium and piths it, removing its capacity to chase her—

—and she’s reaching out, arm stretching unnaturally, she’s going to soar past—

—and her fingers close on the metal, and the tug of it almost tears her fingers off, but then she’s holding onto the missile as it surges forwards, faster even than the VECTOR engine could manage at the height of her power.

CORAL’s body is thrown behind the missile like it’s wearing her as a cape. The wind rips at her face, the remains of her clothes disintegrate, but she forces her arm forward and grabs the missile and steers it around, surely there’s enough fuel in this thing, the other missiles converge behind…

…and before she knows it, she’s back face to face with the first enemy plane, punching through a cloud of chaff. Meaningless, to VECTOR senses.

She can see the pilot’s eyes. Not enough time to register shock.

CORAL releases the missile, and above her head, the plane implodes. A head-on strike; even without the warhead, the missile is a chunk of mass moving at such speeds that the metal crumples like paper. The pilot is liquified in the fraction of a second before the fuel tank ruptures and the plane is just so much burning, everted shrapnel.

CORAL flicks her VECTOR engine back to LANCE, cancels her fall, and scans the sky for her next target.

“A biological transmitter. Made of my own flesh, using radiation treatment to accelerate the pace of willful mutation. To my knowledge, I am the only one who has achieved this.”

“And did the Director order you to do pursue this line of investigation?”

NEMATODE does not hesitate on the lie. “Yes.”

“Without informing the Engineer order responsible for management of the VECTOR program?”

“I was not so informed.”

NEMATODE is starting to think this could be a blessing in disguise. The Director would always be the hardest to remove, seemingly immune to VECTOR weapons. Killing this jumped-up airwoman, on the other hand, would be trivial.

PARALLEL is nodding slowly, scratching her chin. Before she can start on the next line of questioning, someone calls her over to a screen.

“Destroyed?” For the first time since NEMATODE entered the room, a note of nervousness enters PARALLEL’s voice. “Four aircraft?”

“The lead pilot reports engaging with air-to-air missiles. Somehow, the enemy took control of a missile and redirected it back at his plane. It’s not clear what happened next.”

“That’s just… implausible!” PARALLEL spins sharply to face NEMATODE, face creased by anger. “Did you give her this capability, NEMATODE?”

NEMATODE shrugs with affected calm. “No. This would appear to be CORAL’s own talents. On our side, she would be an exceptional dragoon. Perhaps…” NEMATODE allows herself one theatric pause of her own, “perhaps even better than me.”

A chill runs across the command centre. NEMATODE is not exactly happy to hear State pilots shot down, but a tiny part of her still thrills to see her fellow VECTORs once again proving their worth.

She holds up a hand before PARALLEL can speak again. “Perhaps I can tell you what she’s doing?”

The tenth plane gets her.

It’s the loiter munitions. A new trick or an old one—regardless, they’re unfamiliar to CORAL. They lurked in the trees below, and then, as she destroyed plane number 9, leapt to catch her from behind, vectoring to hide in her blind spot—how could they know to do that? The missiles don’t even explode, just punch through her spine, shoulders, limbs… all pinpoint accurate. CORAL starts regenerating immediately, but she’s falling now, a bloody streak in the air, her VECTOR engine flung somewhere out of reach.

She contorts herself into the air, seizing control of her dive. She’s not out of the fight yet. The last plane circles round, staying well out of reach… she can see it bring its cannon to bear. A simple strategy: stay out of reach and destroy her body, over and over, until she has no reserves left to regenerate. Then scoop up what’s left.

The first bullets rake her body from head to toe, but puncture holes are easy to regenerate. Their momentum is more problematic, kicking her back into another twisting spin. Must look like a fucking blood corkscrew.

The plane passes overhead. The pilot has a limit, too: will CORAL’s urge to stand back up and fight outlast their ammunition?

When she hits the treeline, she’s trying to swim through the air, desperately reaching for that VECTOR engine before the plane comes back around. The forest covers a steep slope, the roots densely knotted into hard soil punctured here and there by metamorphic knives. CORAL bounces once off a tree, another time off the ground, and then skids messily into an inelegant four-point landing.

A moment later, the trees are lacerated by the cannon. The plane is hovering now, no doubt tracking her by her radiation, firing burst after burst to strip away her cover. The air becomes a soup of thick dust and splinters.

Finding the VECTOR engine will be all but impossible. So CORAL runs towards the aircraft, springing off the broken trees. She can’t dart around as slickly as when she holds her engine—but she’s still fast and strong, to a supernatural degree.

The pilot surely feels too far above the ground to possibly be in reach. The cannonfire chases CORAL, and the trees ripple and snap in all directions. It smells wonderful, in fact: a tantalising blend of gunsmoke and wood sap. (It’s probably for the best she never became a perfumier.)

CORAL barely has a plan. Somehow, she’s going to gain altitude, somehow use the trees to fling herself up to meet that hovering enemy. She knows she will. The means will present themselves.

She feels cheated—cheated!—when the plane explodes all on its own.

“That was not CORAL.” NEMATODE opens her eyes. “I believe she’s made contact, after all.”

PARALLEL is looking at her with a flickering mix of emotions: grudging respect, grief, undirected anger. They’re in a small conference room, now—no need for the rank and file to hear every little development. A few officials sit around, watching the two tensely to judge who holds the power. PARALLEL has been feeding her information into a small communications terminal, but now she tosses it aside in disgust.

“That VECTOR just destroyed…” she does some sums on her fingers, flings her hands up in disgust. “I don’t know how much. Take the entire productive output of a major province, stack it up for years. Decades even. Those planes were supposed to be unstoppable, to end the war. And one VECTOR—just one!—destroyed the whole wing.”

“So. You understand the urgency of our project.” NEMATODE tries not to sound too smug. “CORAL is not just one VECTOR—she has allies. Not all as strong as her, but some of them are. The nucleus of the rebellion—the nerve centre. And we’re going to catch them.”

“Fine. Fine. All right, NEMATODE, you’ve made your fucking point.” PARALLEL shoves off from the chair she’s leaning on, dusts herself off. “What’s our next step?”

You watch CERULEAN land, catlike. The pillar girls gasp—all fourteen as one. They’re still working on desynchronising, and most of them still look a lot like CERULEAN.

The wreckage of the plane falls all around, pinging off the shattered treeline.

Of course, CERULEAN has eyes only for one person. There she is. It seems almost parodic, to find CORAL after all this time, stark naked in a clearing in the woods. (A clearing in the woods created by an attack VTOL, but that’s details.)

CERULEAN springs over to her at VECTOR-engine speed, tackling and sending both of them tumbling out of sight. You probably won’t be seeing them for a little while.

CARIBOU suddenly tenses next to you. You glance at her, and scan for danger just like you’ve been taught. But everything seems quiet. The dust from the battle is settling; a few fires burn in the distance where some of the wrecks have crashed.

“One more plane.” CARIBOU says. You glance up—nothing, idiot! “On the ground. I thought CORAL had simply commandeered it—but there’s someone else inside.”

You frown. “I know uh, some planes use humans as a like, fuel source?” you hazard. Though really you only know of one aircraft which used something so gross, and your mother flew it. But hey, until now you’d never seen another up close!

“Not like that. Dressed as an engineer. Lotus and Viv have eyes on her.”

Another engineer. As if Theosebeia wasn’t enough trouble already. You sigh, and pick up your VECTOR engine, letting the needle slide home. “Guess we’d better investigate. Tell them not to hurt her til CORAL says what’s going on?”

“Sure thing.” CARIBOU relays this request. “It’s not far.” she says, and zips off into the trees. You follow close behind… living in the valley has done wonders for your VECTOR-engine skills.

You don’t even entertain the idea that it’s your mother’s aircraft. There would be no reason, none whatsoever. So when the aircraft, and its pilot, come unmistakably into view, it takes you entirely by surprise.

CERULEAN is whole again.

She’s more than whole—she’s never felt better. This is better than her initial defection into CORAL’s arms. Better than when when she’d budded off fourteen young women who she’d once had every reason to believe were dead. CORAL is alive, and in her arms, and nothing can stop them—not even NEMATODE.

They’ve come to rest against a large tree, one that somehow survived the air bombardment. Nestled together, clamped in each others arms and legs, overwhelmed by mutual touch. Not that CERULEAN’s hands are idle—after a battle like that, CORAL has plenty of energy, and inevitably her hand has wandered down, right now just brushing lightly over her glans… there will be time for all sorts of things later, but right now CERULEAN is not letting go for anything.

Eventually they stop kissing long enough to actually speak. “I’m so fucking sorry.” is the first thing that leaps to CERULEAN’s mind—pathetticcc!!!—but CORAL just holds her tighter.

“So am I.”

“I left you in… NEMATODE took you, and I couldn’t—“

“You escaped, CERULEAN.” CORAL looks her dead in the eyes. “You escaped, and you did everything I asked. You found them, right? Viv, and the kids, and OPHANIM and everyone…”

“Yeah.” CERULEAN grins. “That was a surprise. You could have mentioned that she was like…”

CORAL starts laughing uncontrollably. “Fuck, I never did!” Her laughs slowly turn into sobs, and CERULEAN keeps holding her, and belatedly realises she’s crying too.

“We’ll be all right.” CORAL says, eventually. “I escaped! They couldn’t keep me!” She sighs. “Not without help, but… I met people. Allies. I know what NEMATODE’s trying to do… CORAL, I saw some shit, believe me…”

CERULEAN winces. She doesn’t mention the eyes yet. Or the weird spiral. “You destroyed that uh, that mining town? What were they even mining out there? I saw you on the newsreels, you looked… incredible.” She shivers, and presses into CERULEAN. “Beautiful.”

CORAL brushes a finger over her face. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m pretty hot, right?” And then they’re both laughing again, and it’s the most beautiful thing on a day full of beautiful things.

So of course, CERULEAN has to go and ruin it.

“CORAL, we have reason to think… you know about your eyes right? OPHANIM says…” She stops. CORAL has frozen, eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. “Love…” she says.

“I’m tainted.” CORAL whispers. “NEMATODE did something to me. Put something in me. That’s what you’re going to say, right? Just like those girls on the steppe.”

Who? It doesn’t matter. “We think she’s tracking you.” CERULEAN manages. “She wants to find us, so…”

“So it was all a lie.” CORAL was crying before, but now she lets out big, ugly sobs. “I wanted to believe it was all me! My talents, my power! But they let me go, to find you. And I’ve led them…”

“You’ve led them to a random fucking mountain in the middle of nowhere!” CERULEAN interjects. “When the nomads reached out… we told them to send you here. Somewhere safe. Until we work out how they’re tracking you. We’ll never abandon you, CORAL.” She pauses. “I won’t let them, if they try.”

CORAL doesn’t speak. She just grips CERULEAN tighter, and cries on her shoulder, until the sky is completely dark.

This is, NEMATODE considers, a complication. She opens her eyes again, casts her gaze around the conference room. PARALLEL taps her foot impatiently.

“It appears our enemy has belatedly realised we are tracking CORAL.” she says. “They haven’t exactly discerned the nature of the tracking device, but they do not intend to return to their base until they’ve cleansed CORAL.”

“Oh, and how hard would that be?” The airwoman does not look impressed. “I mean, if it’s this easy for them to figure out, you coulda stuck a radio up her ass.”

Oh, fuck off. But NEMATODE continues as if it’s a perfectly reasonable question. “Almost impossible. CORAL’s body will regenerate my eye and antenna if it is injured. To remove the infection would require powerful radiation sources, not to mention expert knowledge they simply do not have.”

“But they won’t budge until they’re sure. Bit of an impasse, isn’t it?”

“Fortunately, we no longer need to rely on CORAL alone.” NEMATODE rises from her seat at the operations table, and walks to the door. “POLYTOPE?”

PARALLEL startles as POLYTOPE enters. Even to NEMATODE, the effect is still uncanny… like looking in a mirror that doesn’t reflect her movements. It’s a risk to recall POLYTOPE, but the Director is just… gone. NEMATODE sent POLYTOPE’s body everywhere, throughout her chambers, and there is no evidence that any hexagon-eyed terror even existed.

The one time she looked away…

“Since the Director is apparently indisposed, I must explain our new weapon myself.” The explanation is briefer, this time—PARALLEL thankfully lacks the Director’s prurient interest in testing the limits of NEMATODE’s control.

“So what, you cut off bits of finger and shoot out of a gun?” she says, looking equal parts impressed and disgusted.

“Essentially, yes.”

PARALLEL takes a moment to digest this further. “Fine!” she says eventually. “Fine! I hate it, but you’re right.” A tremendous sigh. “Everything about this stinks like giant shit, NEMATODE. You’re all still keeping secrets, your superweapon is your own fucking fingers, but I’ll admit it, missiles aren’t cutting it this time. If this is what it takes…”

No need, just yet, to mention the big hole in NEMATODE’s plan: she has still, try as she might, not been able to get more than the most surface glimpse of POLYTOPE’s memories. Her clones know just as much as she does. That will be solved, sooner or later. Memory is just flesh, after all.

You step out from the trees. CARIBOU reaches out a hand to stop you, then hesitates, draws back. You can see Viv and Lotus, concealed well enough to fool anyone without VECTOR sight.

Cirrina—mum—glances up, and sighs. No recognition. “Another fucking VECTOR.” you hear her mutter, barely audible. She looks back up at you, disdain naked on her face… and then her eyes catch on some feature of your face, and finally, they widen, her mouth falls open.

You haven’t yet felt comfortable with the overt semi-nudity of the more experienced VECTORs, but you know that you must still be quite the sight. Tall, poised, wearing half a cape in imitation of your favourite feature of State uniforms, your hair grown out, dyed purple, cut into a diagonal slash; the same diagonal line at your skirt (because of course you have a skirt, you love skirts.) The diagonal lines converging to a point… all contributing to what you consider a suitably striking, asymmetric silhouette. You’re pretty proud of it, if you’re honest. The cape flutters nicely when you leap about.

Cirrina interrupts your self-appreciation session by walking up and punching you in the face. Her fist bounces right off, but it’s still kind of startling.

“Mum.” You say this awkwardly, your voice catching. “This is… this is me. CHIASMUS.”

Cirrina swings a fist at you again, rather half-heartedly. You deflect it more out of decorum than any concern she could actually hurt you.

“You’re Jermaine.” she mutters. “You’re my Jermaine, and whatever delusional fantasies this cult has put into your head—“

You turn around, letting your cape swish, because you can do that now. Cirrina stops her rant, and you hear her drop to her knees behind you.

“This was always me. As soon as I could figure out what I wanted.” It’s coming out now. You can’t stop yourself. “Honestly? It didn’t matter if I was a VECTOR or an engineer or what. Now I know what it’s like… yeah, I love this body, I love the way me move, but it’s never been about fighting! Not for me!” You swallow. “All I needed—the only thing!—was you to take it seriously when I said I could not be a man. That I wasn’t yours to define.”

“A lot of people,” says Cirrina, “have died because of your childish tantrum, Jermaine.”

You twist round, hot tears in your eyes. A BLADE has appeared by your hand, distorted, shifting… you thrust it into the ground and let go of the VECTOR engine. You’re not so far gone that you’re going to stab your mum. Not yet.

“And what, Lady Engineer?” you manage to hiss. “Sad you lost some raw material? A helpful set of tools?”

She grinds her teeth, and doesn’t speak for a good minute. Still slumped. You wait.

“Ugh.” she mutters, eventually. “You’re just like the other one. Were you always this… ideological? Did I just not notice?” Her eyes fix on you suddenly, strangely desperate. “I grant people the nobility of purpose, you… you nitwit!”

The word is so incongruous that you can’t help but laugh. The drama dissipates. You were so afraid of her… and now she can’t even swear at you.

“Well.” You shake your head. “Lucky for you, mother, I’ve found a really good purpose, these days.” She scowls, but that seems to be that. “So why the fuck are you here anyway?”

She does not answer. Eventually you have to storm off, just to clear the tension in the air.

This night is weird. It almost feels like a fever dream. CORAL’s back in the group, after all those months alone, dressed once again in borrowed clothes (there are kids present, incomprehensibly.)

Cirrina has somehow run into CHIASMUS, and they both look miserable. CORAL will have to pry the story out of her later, once they’ve caught up… and there’s a lot of catching up to do. She still can’t handle what she heard about CROSSROADS. Or that this gaggle of young VECTORS is actually, somehow, the pillar girls in that road. It seems too good to be true.

“So.” CORAL says, for maybe the fifth time. “She’s like… down there? Right now? A VECTOR train? God, NEMATODE would kill to figure that one out…”

“Yeah! She’s such a sweetheart…” CHIASMUS perks up at this, suddenly talkative. Lotus starts giggling… oh! Well, then. Good for CHIASMUS…

CORAL looks to another part of the campfire. Apparently nobody is concerned about being seen—well, the State knows exactly where you are, after all. CARIBOU catches her eye and starts in on war talk. “We had better arrange to protect the Witnesses. They’ve done us a really good turn… you think some of them might want to VECTORise?”

“Yeah, that’d be…” CORAL feels a wave of sleepiness coming on, and she leans on CERULEAN’s arm. Still hard to believe it’s real. “That’d be really good.”

For the first time in many months, she does not dream of NEMATODE, and the cell.

NEMATODE looks at the silent cell. They’re all out of prisoners, now. The torturers were sent away to other sites, months ago…

After all this time, her plan is about to reach fruition. She’s burned a lot—literally, and figuratively. But the rebels would burn so much more, and the State—her State, the potential it still has—is worth preserving.

She has to believe that.

The VECTOR corps in the base have been purged. A new bullet for anyone with even slightly dubious loyalty. A good test on unwilling subjects—and a good test of whether she could coordinate so many bodies at once. Curiously, her clones do not match her in skill—some remnant of the old will interfering, perhaps. Surely she can adapt, given time.

Now, wherever she walks, a hush follows. Fear, more than respect, but she can work with that. Nobody is sure whether she’s the original, or one of the new NEMATODEs walking around… and one could be waiting, anywhere, just as stern. Even PARALLEL looks at her warily, now. She splits her clones up, assigning one to each Arbitrator squad: anything to help her bullets find their home.

The Director, meanwhile, remains nowhere to be seen. NEMATODE has left POLYTOPE’s body behind, waiting in her chambers. That mind knows what to do, if the Director should show.

A tiny, quiet, ping. T−00:05:00. Time to deploy.

NEMATODE turns, leaving the cell behind. She walks through the tunnels, nodding at each salute. Up the stairs and ramps, up to the surface, sitting down statue-calm in the waiting VTOL. The ground drops away.

Time to win.