chapter SIXTH

CORAL opens her crusted eyes, with some difficulty. Her face itches. It must be absolutely coated in rheum and dried blood.

Maybe something worse!

She struggles to piece together hazy memories - the cracked shell of a Furnace (that Furnace, her Furnace), Rugosa’s melted body, the briefest glimpse of CERULEAN and NEMATODE fighting. Why is it all so hazy?

Of course, she was beheaded. Even for a VECTOR, it’s hard to concentrate and form memories without one’s heart and lungs. Regrowing her entire body from just a head would have taken weeks, even with the best medical care… any amount of time could have passed.

The space—too early to call it a room—is utterly dark. Her crusted eyes capture nothing but the faint traces of her own radiation.

She tries to raise her arm to wipe away the muck, and stops just as quickly with an agonised gasp. She’s used to pain, but this is a step beyond. A thick stench reaches her nose, oil and ash. There’s something buried inside her arm. Some machine that stops her body moving as she wills it - like a VECTOR engine in reverse.

How very fortunate she is, to have a body again!

That she would be captured was inevitable. There was no escape to death for her. Winning the war, living to see a world with no State—too obviously a fantasy, one whose contours she can scarcely imagine. Her acts of resistance and destruction… they were something she was compelled to do, rage and pain she could no longer contain, with no thought to the future. Detonating the furnace was supposed to be suicide—and every day she fought since, an unearned stay of execution.

But the guillotine blade would fall. They would catch her, in time.

Now it’s come to pass, though… she feels sick, not relieved. CERULEAN, CHIASMUS—she’s abandoned them. Abandoned herself, in the Furnace… or was she abandoning a mask she’s worn, all those dead years since Rugosa was cast into the pyre?

If she’d only fought, she and CERULEAN could have made good their escape.

But she chose not to. Chose to end up here.

She does not want these thoughts.

Sooner or later, she’ll be interrogated. They’ll want to know what her plan was, learn some way to compromise the other free VECTORs. They won’t leave her paralysed in the dark forever. (Not that they’d balk at the cruelty, of course. Only the waste of a potential asset.)

She just has to wait.



“You see, it is a matter of expectations. Our subject has not undergone formal VECTOR training, so her idea of what interrogation entails will be crude. We must provide stimulus in line with her perception of the world.”

The technician smiles simperingly up at NEMATODE from the lower platform. Their face is calculatedly normal - everything from skin tone to the shape of their nose drawn from a statistical average of the State’s population. Neither sharp nor smooth, neither old nor young, carefully purged of gender cues. A temporary face makes it easier to perform this sort of work.

“What will this exercise accomplish, precisely?” The Director does not bother to look at the technician. She faces NEMATODE—who has, after all, assumed responsibility for all personnel in this operation.

“The short-term project is to discern the location of her accomplices. A potential longer term project is to adjust her motivations, in order to make her more useful as an asset.”

“Surely you do not imagine she would defect?”

“She does not have to be loyal to be an asset. The more she believes she is personally responsible for her rebellion’s failures, the more rashly she will act. And as a terrified animal, she will flee along the presented path.”

“I see.” The director’s eyes flick to the medical and torture equipment, all carefully sealed in sterile packages. “So you plan to stage an escape, and watch where she runs. A plan with considerable risks, surely? In this narrative you’re building, would she not still expect to be tracked?”

“Of course she would. We must convince her she has lost our pursuit.” Without actually doing so. But NEMATODE has a plan… one she can’t readily discuss with the Director. Not until she has results to show for it. She weighs her next words carefully - just enough of the truth. “We have recently engineered a new technology, one which provides a tracking capability using the subject’s own organs.”

“Remarkable. And you are certain this new technology is sufficiently reliable?”

“Yes. The tests have been unambiguous.”

The Director smiles, without any humour. “Then please, proceed. I will be most curious to see the results.”

“Aye, sir.” NEMATODE steps back to the rail, and directs the technicians to decant CORAL from her storage pod into the interrogation room. She nods to the presiding Investigator, who unseals a fresh pair of long, white gloves. All so precise, so efficient. The people and machines, tools and clothing, all fitting together seamlessly and perfectly. Interchangeable parts, their origins irrelevant.

She allows herself a small smile.

But the Director isn’t finished. “I have placed a great deal of faith in you, NEMATODE. Many of my colleagues in the Assembly tell me the VECTOR family is fundamentally defective. I have been so glad to have such a promising specimen to offer as a counterexample.”

NEMATODE wants to laugh. She feels more insulted that the Director would already resort to such a transparent threat than the explicit contempt for her kind. Of course, she could never be trusted just to do her job. No wonder this State is mired in civil war, no wonder these cowardly, power-hoarding wretches have been unable to manage their creations. If any clade deserved to be called defective…

She lets herself smile as if receiving genuine praise. “Why thank you, Director! I am honoured by your recognition.” Soon enough, she’ll have no need of a patron in the Assembly. For now, let the Director think she has NEMATODE under her thumb.

The wordeater wriggles down CORAL’s throat, thick and slimy. It’s gone in seconds, but she still imagines she can feel it settling in, burrowing through the walls of her stomach to latch on to each organ and build its sensory network. There is no pain, yet—the snake anaesthatises the wounds. But she can feel a sense of deep wrongness as her VECTOR body tries and fails to patch up the unexpected lacunae.

“We will know when you lie.” NEMATODE says this calmly, resting her gloved hands on the small table without any apparent concern for the traces of slime left by her snake. “Your will betrays itself. You’ll find it easier when you tell us the truth.” She’s lit from behind, all the light pooled on CORAL. Apart from NEMATODE’s voice, and CORAL’s own breathing, the room is deathly silent.

No wonder CERULEAN hated this woman quite so much.

CORAL tries to spit, but her mouth is dry. NEMATODE looks back, betraying nothing. “Let’s begin. Please, would you tell me your name, and your position in the social order?”

She knows what’s coming, but she has to speak anyway. “My name is CERULEAN. I’m a VECTOR.” NEMATODE frowns midly, and raises one finger. And… there’s the pain. CORAL watches the skin of her arm abruptly turns grey and flake off, oily smoke bursting out from inside. Rapidly, her body cycles between healing and decay, the cracks wriggling on her skin like tiny worms.

CORAL starts to sob and heave. She can’t bring herself to look away.

“You are deluded. Your name is Fagus. You are a failed trainee Industrial. You are not, and never have been, a member of the VECTOR Dragoons. This is a poor start, Fagus!” The Investigator flicks a flake of ash off of the table.

Of course, they had known what she’d say. They wanted her to know the consequence for ‘lying’. CORAL finds she has room for a little bit more hate after all. Her arm heals. CORAL can’t stop staring.

NEMATODE grabs her chin, and forces her to look back up. “You exploited a previously unknown weakness in the transport repair infrastructure. In your own words, please explain: how did you perform this attack?”

CORAL says nothing. NEMATODE waits for a minute - probably counting it exactly. “Lying by omission is still lying.” she says, and starts to raise a finger—

“They did it themselves.” CORAL spits this out. Surely the State already understands that, and she’s giving them no new information. “You were torturing them to support your roads. They freed themselves.”

“Interesting.” NEMATODE lowers her finger. “Deflecting responsibility onto those who cannot speak for themselves. But please, talk about the details! If, as you say, they did it themselves—how did they attain the means?”

CORAL can feel the snake inside her - it feels strangely alike to a VECTOR engine. Of course, far from transforming her desires into beautiful motion through the air, it faithfully reports them to her enemies. But this could be an opportunity. A VECTOR must know when and how to prevent her every passing whim from turning into sudden acceleration. Perhaps this is not so different…

“We gave them a special weapon. An engineered cancer, created by the State.” CORAL has to believe in this fantasy. Has to make it more plausible than the truth. If she believes it, the snake will believe it too.

NEMATODE hesitates for a fraction of a second. Presumably someone on the outside is giving her instructions. Terrible possibilities rush through CORAL’s mind. She’s given up her fake story too easily, she won’t be able to invent another one, she’ll never fool the wordeater.

“A cancer? Please, go on.” NEMATODE says. CORAL does not allow herself to sigh with relief. It can’t have been that easy?

“It must be a secret project. Someone leaked us the information, told us where to go. A dead drop.” She names a date—the day after NEMATODE arrived in the city. Let whoever’s watching draw the connection.

“Oh, you sly little thing. If only I could have trained you…” NEMATODE is outside, now, watching CORAL rest through banks of biometric readouts. Even when all must seem lost, CORAL is hitting back, rapidly constructing a story to implicate NEMATODE in a grand conspiracy. Well, if the Director gets any ideas, the wordeater data will exonerate her. CORAL’s not nearly as good at deceiving the snake as she thinks.

But for now, best to let her think she has sold the lie. NEMATODE can use this.

She glances to the Investigator. “Is the cartridge recharged?” She’s answered with a nod. “Let’s resume.”

The interrogation continues, on and off. They allow her time to stew - but never a predictable time, nothing that would let her relax. Sometimes NEMATODE presides, sometimes one of the strangely identical Investigators. Not that she has much chance to see their faces. Sometimes, she sleeps. Time no longer exists.

“You understand, of course, that your misplaced sympathy has only led to further employment of Infrastucturals.” This time, the Investigator has a fractionally deeper voice. Now she knows they can burn her limbs on a whim, she’s been allowed to move around the cell a bit more. A reward, she’s told, for valuable information.

“Your funeral.” CORAL looks down at her body, waiting to see if this merits another incineration. She found losing limbs disturbing at first, too. A VECTOR must be able to get used to a lot of ways of being hurt. When nothing happens, her relief is almost tinged with disappointment.

“Now, tell me more about this ‘agent’ who helped you… a member of the cavalry, you say?”

“It seemed like it.” The cavalry arrived with NEMATODE. Of course, she’d act through them, if she was really a traitor. CORAL can hold on to this story, a final purpose to anchor her. If she can just drag NEMATODE down too, distract the State from her comrades. If she can just hold out.

“Why would you give us this information?” Not the first time she’s been asked. The interrogations have blurred together. Different people, but always the same questions.

“Like I said—you know when I’m lying and have your hand on the torture button. I’m not stupid.” Why do they keep asking? Why go around these circles? (Maybe she could throttle one of them. She still has arms.)

“Then I have to wonder—why did you rebel? You could easily foresee this outcome.” He taps his finger on the desk.

She laughs, though it comes out as more of a painful cough. “VECTORs follow our dicks ‘n clits, haven’t you heard?”

He steeples his fingers. “Oh, is that it? That would indeed seem to fit your behaviour prior to capture. I heard that when we found you, you had your—“

She snarls, and leaps at him across the table. Only partly an act. All her limbs collapse into powder, regrowing agonisingly slowly around the hateful nodule that causes the pain.

She screams and screams.

The Investigator stands up, dismissively. “We’ll resume this later.”

The days pass. Probably. NEMATODE seems to be visiting less often. It’s hard to tell. CORAL wants to believe it, wants to believe her lie has taken root.

One night (or day), a new VECTOR appears. Sweat plasters her hair to her face, and stains her perfect uniform. CORAL’s seen her before, from a distance… the one who CERULEAN had named JOUISSANCE, or maybe POLYTOPE.

“You bitch. You’ll get us all killed. The end of VECTORs.”

There must still be cameras watching. “Sorry I ratted you out, Wormy?” she says, smiling as viciously as she can manage.

“Why try dragging us into this, you freak? What’s your angle? They’ll turn us all into slimy little dogs.”

“So you’re here to kill me?” CORAL sneers. “You’re already a dog. But you’re terrible at thinking things through.”

Why is she bothering? If this VECTOR kills her now, it will be a mercy. But she can’t resist spitting in her captors’ face one more time.

“Shut up! You should be getting on your knees and thanking me, you little shit, because I’m the one who’s about to free you!”

CORAL blinks.

“Why?” is all she can manage.

“Because you know how to live out there. You’ve shat this bed, and when the purge comes, I want to fucking survive.”

“So we break free and I teach you? You know what… it’s worth a shot.” CORAL is finding it hard to believe that this is not a hallucination, but a hallucination would probably be less rude.

“Finally! Hold still then, I’m going to cut the carts out of you.” Abruptly, there is a BLADE between them. CORAL spreads her arms and lets the other VECTOR remove her limbs with four quick chops.

The other VECTOR disables her Engine, and steps out of the cell, leaving bloody footprints. “Don’t take too long, there.” she says, as CORAL lies collapsed in a nest of rapidly regrowing white threads. After what feels like far too long, she’s whole again, and a strange impulse leads her to reach out and gingerly extract the ‘cartridge’ from one of her discarded legs. Under the film of blood, it’s a perforated metal cylinder—simple, ugly.

Her prison shift is soaked in blood, but no matter. She tears half of it off in an approximation of her old outfit, and hurries to follow her unlikely saviour.

NEMATODE sits by the screen, watching POLYTOPE lead CORAL down a carefully planned series of corridors. They rehearsed the scene a number of times, but she’s still relieved to see POLYTOPE improvise halfway convincingly.

This should be the right point. “Now.” she says, and the nervous technician hits a button, causing alarms to flare throughout the facility. A door slams shut ahead of the fleeing VECTORs. On the screen, a tiny POLYTOPE activates a LANCE, and charges, puncturing the door.

The next part will be slightly unpleasant. She gives a salute to the Director, who insisted on being present, and steps out.

CORAL never got the chance to explore a State military facility. As they run, she stares in fascination at the complex knots of pipes on every surface, the uncovered lacelike fibers at the edge of the ceiling, the strangely bulbous architecture, the sheer density Pillar Girls in the walls.

The next door collapses with a shriek of torn metal, which soon disappears into the clatter of alarms. CORAL sprints forward, wishing she had a VECTOR engine of her own. The fine shards of metal in the air claw at her, leaving a mess of scratches. A mockery of the wires she used to run along her skin.

The other girl—POLYTOPE, not JOUISSANCE, it turns out!—accelerates ahead, floating with her Engine. She reaches a junction, looks to the left—and her mouth opens in surprise. Then, she’s gone.

NEMATODE stands at the junction, lit from above, and carelessly flicks POLYTOPE’s blood off her sword.

Of course it couldn’t be that easy.

But CORAL will not, under any circumstances, go back into that cell.

She charges, relying on brute strength to try and push through NEMATODE’s blade. It’s futile - without a VECTOR engine, she can’t even touch her. NEMATODE is toying with her, reaching out with her sword to make little flicking cuts.

Not at all like CERULEAN’s description.

CORAL doesn’t have time to consider the implications. If NEMATODE won’t just cut her down, she’ll take what advantage she can. She drops down by POLYTOPE’s body—where’s the girl’s resolve!? she should be fighting!—and tears the VECTOR engine out of her hand.

“You’ll bother to fight this time?” NEMATODE says mockingly. “Because if you want to take a moment and have a quick—” CORAL interrupts her with a LANCE, a clumsy thrust, but now she’s on the ceiling, ready to spring back. NEMATODE smiles without warmth. “That’s more like it.”

She is in no condition to fight. Her body’s reserves—the nebulous something that people produce, the thing that furnaces and VECTOR engines burn—are almost nonexistent, wicked away by the same machine that burned her flesh. So she makes a quick few cuts to put NEMATODE on the back foot, and then lets a LANCE drag her away.

POLYTOPE’s intended route seemed the most promising option. No chance to fetch the girl’s body. If they meet again, they can have it out for broken promises.

Abruptly, her corridor opens into a wide, cylindrical tunnel. The floor is a thin metal lattice, below which flows some of the foulest water CORAL has ever seen.

Clear enough what the plan was. Before NEMATODE’s sword can find her back, she’s punched through the lattice and plunged into the broth of sewage.

She moves upstream, because NEMATODE will probably assume the opposite. The water is too thick with muck to see anything, and the current drags her behind her VECTOR engine. Keep moving. Let the water hide her radioactive glow. Keep moving, and she won’t be found.

“Fire into the water. Make sure she notices.”

The soldiers scurry off to follow the order. NEMATODE smiles slightly. Before long, CORAL will be outside.

POLYTOPE comes up beside her, fiddling with the tattered hole in her uniform. “Did you have to stab me so hard? Uh, sir.”

“You did well.” NEMATODE smiles briefly, and watches the young VECTOR flush wish the praise. “She seemed entirely convinced.”

“Thank you, sir!” POLYTOPE salutes sharply.

“Fix your uniform. We’re redeploying tomorrow.” NEMATODE gives her another nod, then turns away, and closes her eyes.

Two of her eyes.

A vision comes into view, perfectly sharp, just as it has all the days before. CORAL is out of the water, resting by the bank before she makes her way onwards to… well, that remains to be seen.

It had taken many tries to perfect this implanting technique. She’d accidentally given birth to a few new VECTORs along the way, all now safely mutated into innocuous forms. Many tries—but not that many tries.

She sighs. Really, the other VECTORs discarded their flesh so easily, just left it to rot! And all this time, when with a little effort (and a little radiation), all that material could be made to work.

Somewhere upstream, CORAL oblivously rubs NEMATODE’s eye, drags herself to her feet, and starts her long walk back towards home.