The door clicks shut behind NAUTILUS. You found yourself liking the old woman—and realise, belatedly, that she was the only partisan who wasn’t at least a little afraid. Even the girl very obviously making eyes at CERULEAN had a hint of trepidation.
You glance back towards CERULEAN, and then at the all-too-narrow injector cylinder. “Did she mean just one of us…” you find yourself saying. CERULEAN must know how you feel about her, you’re not that subtle, but the thought of being pressed together in that tiny space feels like a cruel joke.
“Pretty sure she said both.” CERULEAN pauses, partway through removing her tattered and blood-soaked uniform like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Probably is, in her world. Another reminder that you’re not really a VECTOR. “Hey.” she says. “You ok? Just because she said it…”
“Uh.” You are finding it hard to speak. What do you even want to tell her? That you are desperately attracted to her—as if she can’t tell? That when she’s so dazzling, when you’re just some worm she’s taken pity on, it seems pathetic and, well, evil, to even have those thoughts? That the thought of intruding on her and CORAL at a time like this makes you feel physically sick?
…some worm? Where did that come from? As if you haven’t been looking after her in the pit of grief, taking responsibility for finishing CORAL’s plan when she was so ready to just give in. You’re not that different.
“I’m having some complicated feelings.” you manage to say.
CERULEAN glances at the pod, and then smiles to you. “Want to talk about it?” You feel another wave of sickness. But you nod, and say…
Nothing. Your mouth is full of sand.
CERULEAN steps over and suddenly, she’s hugging you. Your breath catches, but you hug her back. She leads you over to a wall, and you slump down against it, still held. Her arms are so warm. The wall rumbles softly with the motion of the train.
“If you don’t feel comfortable getting in there with me, I’m pretty sure I can figure it out.” She smiles awkwardly. You stare at her lips for a second.
You have to say something. You can feel the weight of time, the State VECTOR squad surely mobilising to massacre everyone on this train. “That’s not it. Not exactly… I really want to. Like, really want to.” Your face is burning. “But I’d be so… and like, you and CORAL… I’m such a creep…” There are so many things you should be saying, but you don’t seem to be thinking any of them.
“Oh CHIASMUS.” CERULEAN lets out a breath, but she’s smiling. “You’ve really gotten thrown in at the deep end here.” She gives you a squeeze. “When they induct a new clade, the first few weeks you’re like a pack of screechers in heat. They make a few examples, to tell you to keep it in private like, don’t get your tits out on the parade ground… but they kind of rely on the fact that we’re all fucking each other. Helps with unit cohesion or some such. Makes it harder to turn traitor. Powers up the VECTOR engines. And when we have to do something particularly horrible on the field, well, there’s a lot of shoulders to cry on back there.” She’s still smiling, but it looks increasingly strained. “Supposed to make it easier.”
You’re laughing. That’s odd. “On the message boards…” you find yourself saying. “They always said that’s not how it is. The ones who were all, this is very serious military business, the State VECTOR Dragoons would never do that.”
“Well, it’s not as fun as it sounds.” CERULEAN says. She shudders—you don’t want to ask. “But yes, it is like that. You’re not a creep, CHIASMUS. Or maybe we all are.”
You’re feeling a lot calmer. Something compels you to ask. “Who was it?”
“Who was who?”
“The one who got her tits out on the parade ground.”
CERULEAN laughs with genuine humour. “Oh, me obviously. Just walked out there like it was nothing. I mean, look at these!” She takes your wrist and guides it to a boob. Your eyes unfocus briefly. Too many sensations… your skin is so hot.
Her face is very close now.
“What happened?” you say. It’s obvious what she’s about to do, but you need a moment.
“Well. You had to see Wormy’s face… but she kicked me to the floor, broke my arm, and then sent me to get dressed properly. Pretty mild, all told!”
You process this for a moment.
“The night after made it worth it.” she says. “Even back then, we hated Wormy, and craved her approval. Seeing someone cut through that, piss her off…”
You don’t want to think about ‘Wormy’ anymore. You move your fingers over her skin, touching softly, still not sure this is happening… CERULEAN arches her back slightly, like a cat, pushing into your hand.
She turns her head back to you, meeting your eyes. You nod, ever so slightly. And then, you can feel her lips… they’re surprisingly soft. For someone who can summon such speed and power against her enemies, CERULEAN kisses you ever so carefully, savouring the touch. You could stay like this forever.
She releases you, and gestures towards the injector. “You feeling a little—“
“Yes.” You want nothing more, right now. CERULEAN tears off the rest of her uniform, and after a little bit of effort, you get your own stolen clothes off too. She helps you over the edge of the metal cylinder.
The inside is not padded - presumably it’s designed for a mortal technician in some sort of protective suit. CERULEAN hops in after you, and passes you something - ah, your VECTOR engine. Hers is already plugged into her hand. As you expected, the space is barely large enough to contain the two of you, and you find yourself tangled up in her limbs. She kisses you again, and you kiss her back, more energetically.
The pod closes, dropping you into darkness. There is a mechanical grinding noise, and a lurch of acceleration which pushes you together in a slightly painful way. Then, you feel a trickle of fluid, and the pod starts to fill with some sort of fluid.
Body temperature. It’s like the train’s pissing on you, your brain suggests helpfully.
“Can we, uh… drown?” you manage to say, your voice painfully loud in the tiny space.
“Not really.” CERULEAN says. “It might hurt a bit at first, but we can absolutely keep up with a little drowning!”
She holds you tight as the fluid closes over your head.
Lotus cranes over the monitor, forcing Verbena to shift awkwardly. The security computer is a strange, bulbous object, not quite spherical, the casing punched through here and there by thick cables and smaller submodules.
The grainy image shows the passengers—fortunately, not all that numerous on this segment of the route. Ten minutes ago, she’d watched them awkwardly file into the dining car, following Viv’s rather vague emergency announcement. Now, they sit tensely, awaiting further instructions.
“I don’t see the group in the tail suite.” Lotus frowns. “Some senior administrator type and her kids. Makes me worried. Where did the arbs hide, anyway?”
Verbena nods. “Has to have been there. Maybe they have some other surprises.”
Viv emerges from the doorway, Granny Nauts close behind. She’s carrying one of the weapons from the arbitrator squad, finger resting casually near the trigger guard in a way that says “yes, I absolutely know how to use this.” (Lotus didn’t think she could be more impressive. Shows her.)
Lotus nods respectfully. (At one point Lotus tried to salute, and it made Viv angrier than she’d ever seen her.) “Hey, Viv. Can we get a picture from the tail car?”
Viv shakes her head. “Sadly, not. Administrator privileges. It could be bypassed, but it would take more time than we have…”
For a moment, Lotus hesitates. “Our guests, then? Whatever they have back there, can’t be enough to stop a VECTOR.”
“No doubt.” Viv says. “But we don’t have time to wait for them. Point that thing at segment 31.” Verbena taps in the command. The screen switches to show a trio of carapaced arbitrators, standing in front of a sealed door. One of them is crouching at the threshold, fiddling with some piece of equipment. The others scan the corridor warily.
Verbena gulps. “So, reserves. But just three?”
Arbitrators, Lotus recalls, customarily operate in pods of six. She hadn’t counted the corpses scattering the corridor in the wake of CERULEAN’s attack, not that it would be easy when they were in so many pieces. But at a guess… it could easily have been two pods.
“Aye.” Viv says. “The others are probably guarding their boss. Or preparing something nastier. We can keep them busy with the doors, but only so long.”
On the screen, the three arbitrators run out of shot. The scene is still for a few seconds. Then, everything disappears in a cloud of dust. Lotus listens, trying to hear the blast, but she can’t tell over the sound of the train.
“We have their guns now. It’s a fairer fight.” she says, not believing her own words. The arbitrators’ living armour, where it was even intact, would reject any host other than the original, so they could only even the gap so far. And of all the partisans on the train, she can see that only Viv knows these weapons.
But what other option is there? The room is still silent. “We just have to hold them off.” she continues, hesitantly. “The VECTORs can finish the job. We don’t have to win.”
“Could we take hostages?” Verbena asks. Lotus is a little taken aback, despite the desperate situation. It’s an uncharacteristically ruthless suggestion from soft-spoken Verbena.
Before she can think what to say, Granny Nauts intervenes. “Children, honestly! You realise we can talk to them, don’t you?”
“Talk to them?”
“Yes. What I said. This was a cleanup job. Now two thirds of them are dead and the VECTORS could reappear any moment to finish the job. You think they really still want to fight, if they have the choice?”
Verbena swivels his chair to face her. “What, and set them up to backstab us later? They volunteered to kill for the State! Kill us! There’s a line.”
Viv frowns. “No, she has a point. No-one fights to the death if they can help it. Not even arbs.”
Verbena shakes his head. “I can’t believe I’m listening to this. What would we tell them? Our VECTORs are busy so would you nicely not kill us until they come back?”
“No.” Lotus says. “We’re showing mercy. We aren’t the State—let’s prove it to them. Make them really ask themselves which side they want to be on.”
Verbena opens his mouth to say something, then winces. The pain, again. “Fine.” he says. “That’s stupid, but it’s a few minutes they’re not killing us. Why not.”
Abruptly, there is light.
CERULEAN disentangles herself from CHIASMUS, but gives her another quick squeeze. Startling the difference two years as a VECTOR can make. She hopes she hasn’t gone too fast, but CHIASMUS seemed to need a really unambiguous signal before she would do anything. A very familiar feeling.
Something they can talk about when they aren’t at imminent risk of death.
The world is coloured shades of pale orange and peach, murky shapes floating in it. The light comes from up ahead… she squeezes forwards, fingers gripping strands of some fleshy substance.
A voice suddenly enters her perception. It’s felt as much as heard, rumbling through the goop around her. “Uh, careful with that. Come a little forward?”
CERULEAN swims forward, trying not to grip the strands and tissues, and wiggles out into a round space. Tiny cilia brush against her, leaving her feeling strangely ticklish. At the centre of the space, she can murkily see a column of flesh connecting back to the train, and at the end of it…
She swims closer, the cilia catching on her arms. The figure at the centre twitches, the voice speaks again.
“Please, don’t pull too hard… I see with those!”
Behind, CHIASMUS emerges out into the space, and follows close behind. CERULEAN feels a burning sensation in her lungs, familiar from water training before. Soon, it will spread throughout her body, then fade to a background itch as her VECTOR healing takes over the business of keeping her cells alive and active. The fluid seems to be slightly acidic as well, and her skin is tingling.
The pilot comes into view.
She is humanlike, mostly. From her waste down, her body disappears into the thick strands of engineered train-flesh - they must have excised her legs. The cilia curve up behind her, around her shoulders, connecting somewhere at the nape of her neck. Close together, the fibers look almost like wings. She’s perfectly bald, and her face is covered by a strange pale film, beneath which her eyes are closed. Tubes and cables run up her torso, connecting at seemingly random points. She looks to be a few years older than CERULEAN and CHIASMUS, though with such elaborate engineering, it’s hard to tell.
The pilot moves a hand through the fluid, taking one of CERULEAN’s fingers. Here eyes open under the film on her face. “I can’t see very well in here, ironically.” the voice says. Her lips are not moving. “God, you’re hot.”
CERULEAN hopes CHIASMUS isn’t about to start asking awkward questions about what happened to her sex organs.
“What do you need from us?” she tries to say, but the words are of course muffled by the strange fluid filling her lungs. The pilot seems to get the gist, though. She gestures to one of the tubes, and CERULEAN follows it with her eyes to a small metallic lump embedded at the base of her skull. The voice speaks again. “You want me to drive where I want? Then that has to go. And then…” she hesitates. CERULEAN imagines her taking a steadying breath, but of course, no lungs.
“And then, I need you to VECTORise me.”
THREE ARBITRATOR STURGEON steps through the haze of smoke, keeping her profile small, sweeping her sights across the corridor to check for—
No, that’s not right.
FIVE ARBITRATOR STURGEON is not at all comfortable with her field promotion. She’s trying not to let it distract her, though. There’s already more than enough reason to think these are her last few minutes alive.
She whispers into her radio. “Segment 29. Clear.” The other two arbitrators step out from behind the doorframe, and hurry up behind her. These tactics are meaningless against VECTORs, for whom thoughts about cover and sightlines would be an amusing novelty, but her training is all she has to go on.
The next door is, predictably, also sealed. “How many left?” she says to the arbitrator on her left—TWO WEFT.
WEFT checks the bag slung over his shoulder, and pulls out another charge. “Five, sir.” Not nearly enough to punch through 29 doors, but there are other, slower ways.
She glances to the side. “What’s that hatch?” It’s marked with the symbols of the Industrial family, and a clade mark she doesn’t recognise—presumably something like the clade of train engineers. WEFT steps up, and roughly tears the hatch off. A ladder leads down into the floor. “Looks like it leads inside the train, sir. Might be an alternative route, sir.”
STURGEON nods. “Check it out. See if there’s a path. And give me those.” She takes the bag of explosives, and steps up to the sealed door. Trains, she can’t help but think, are absurdly overengineered.
A voice suddenly fills the room. “Arbitrator squad, this is FOUR LOCOMOTOR VELVET, speaking on behalf of this train’s pilot. There is a communications terminal on the wall to your right. Please pick it up.” VELVET pauses for a moment, then continues. “There has been enough killing. We wish to offer you a chance to surrender.”
STURGEON stops fiddling with the bomb, briefly. There is a moment of silence. Then, her other companion, TWO GORSE, starts laughing hollowly. “Surrender to them? After that massacre?”
“Shut up, GORSE.” STURGEON’s mind is racing. Why would they want to take prisoners? Her senior officer reported VECTORs before she died, and yet they haven’t come back to finish the job. Did something happen to the VECTORs? Did they want more valuable hostages? Or are these rebels really operating on some twisted sense of honour, some nonsensical code entirely divorced from the social institutions that made honour have meaning?
She walks to the communication terminal, and rests her hand on it. “GORSE, set up those explosives. I’m going to try to get some intel.”
“I’ve done my research. I know what it entails.” the pilot says. “And yes, I know it doesn’t always work. But this is really the only chance I have to escape this! You understand. You have to understand.”
You glance to CERULEAN, who has generated a short BLADE, and wriggled her way up behind the pilot. She looks particularly beautiful there, in the soft orange light. But then, you may be biased at this point.
“Now.” the pilot says, “you won’t have long before my brainstem dies. Ideally, one of you cuts and the other sticks a body part in. You’re more familiar with that part, I reckon.” She laughs nervously, the laugh a kind of rumble in the water. “I know, I only just met you and I’m asking you to stick your hand inside me! Promise I’ll… what is it they do out there, buy you dinner?”
You can’t help but laugh too. What a fucking day.
CERULEAN seems to have volunteered to be the one to cut out the control nodule, which you can’t help but admit makes a little sense—she does actually know how to use a sword. But that leaves you cutting off your own hand. Not that you haven’t tried before, but you can’t exactly say you’re used to the feeling.
Well, no sense waiting. You try to take a steadying breath, and then feel extremely stupid when your lungs fill up with more of the goop. And then you do it.
With the lingering feelings of arousal from cuddling up to CERULEAN, it barely takes a few seconds for your hand to grow back. Your severed hand floats in the water, seeping out a cloud of blood. You swim forwards slightly, getting in close. Now you’re face to face with the pilot, looking through that thin film and into her eyes.
CERULEAN says something, which after a second you realise is probably “ready?”, and you nod. Her sword comes down. You thrust the hand in, and then push yourself away.
The pilot thrashes and twitches as the VECTOR material starts mingling into her body. The pinnacle of engineering, they once said: immortality itself. You can’t stop staring.
The pilot’s body doesn’t change much. Some of the tubes pop out, spewing various oily fluids into the vesicle. She grows taller, but not thinner. The film over her face splits, and dissolves away, and her face softens, just a little. A VECTOR always attains her ideal body, that’s what they said. Apparently she was pretty happy in hers.
The omnipresent rumbling of the train slows to nothing. You wonder about the scene outside the vesicle. A dark tunnel, presumably. Feeder cables. Little else.
Did it work?
The train stops.
FOUR VELVET glances to the assembled partisans. Some of the others have made their way up to the security room.
“Industrial FOUR VELVET.” The arbitrator on the other end speaks through the communication line in a tinny voice. “You are asking an officer of the Arbitration Corps to perform an act of sedition against the State. This is improper behaviour. Why?”
“Who am I speaking to?” VELVET replies.
“I am THR- FIVE ARBITRATOR STURGEON. I am the ranking officer on board this train.” That doesn’t seem right. What about the administrator officially travelling in the rear car? Still, VELVET has to stick to the script.
“Thank you, STURGEON. You will notice the train has stopped. We have the support of VECTORs, and with their assistance, the pilot has taken independent control of this train. As such, we officially renounce all ties to the State.”
A moment of silence. Then: “Your treasonous statements have been noted.” Somewhere behind her, Verbena snorts.
“We are not monsters.” VELVET says. “If you surrender your arms, you will be treated well, and escorted to a safe place outside the control of the State. You will be on the right side of history. But if you continue to threaten us with violence, we will have no choice but to ask our VECTOR comrades to intervene.”
STURGEON replies almost instantly. “And why haven’t you done that?”
“Perhaps you do not share our values. But we take no joy in violence.” Abruptly, she recalls the image of CERULEAN stepping lightly into her room, dripping blood, the slight glow satisfaction all about her. She dismisses the image. “What is your decision?”
A long pause. Finally, STURGEON says “Please, allow me ten minutes to discuss this matter with my comrades.”
“Very well.” VELVET severs the connection.
STURGEON lowers the receiver, and turns to find a gun levelled at her forehead.
“TWO ARBITRATOR GORSE.” she says. “Lower your firearm. Now.”
GORSE does not lower her firearm.
STURGEON repeats. “This is an act of mutiny. Lower your firearm.” She is curiously unafraid.
GORSE scowls. “You are a traitor. Your command is invalid.”
“Now hold on!” STURGEON feels genuinely wounded. “I heard their offer. That doesn’t mean I’m entertaining—“
“But you are, aren’t you?” GORSE says. “Maybe you cooked up this whole scenario! Maybe you told them we’re coming!”
STURGEON throws up her hands. “All right, yes, I am considering that it might be better to live than to—“
GORSE shoots her.
You are holding the pilot, staring into her closed eyes, no film between you now. CERULEAN floats nearby, watching with concern.
For VECTORs, medical care does not really exist as such. There are very few injuries that a VECTOR cannot heal on her own, fast enough that dressings are almost irrelevant. All she needs is space.
But it’s not clear if the pilot is a VECTOR, yet. Or if she even can be. Is this engineering compatible? Is her connection to the train being processed as a foreign object? More and more, you realise how little you understand about the thing you’ve become.
And then, just a little, her eyelids twitch. Her eyes focus. She meets your gaze.
“Oh shit.” she says. “I’ve got cops inside me.”
“They’re where?” VELVET says.
“They have entered the maintenance vessels inside the body of the train itself.” NAUTILUS says, patiently. “Their carapaces suffice for protective equipment. They are most likely planting explosives, hoping to cause a fatal injury to the train.”
“Oh, fuck.” VELVET pauses. “But if the pilot’s plan succeeds? Won’t she be able to recover? The train is part of her body!”
“Maybe.” NAUTILUS shrugs. “But at that scale? Not before reinforcements arrive.”
A long, unpleasant silence. Time for orders.
“NAUTILUS, I need our VECTORs, now. Get them out of the vesicle. VERBENA, open the doors. I’m going back there to buy us some time.”
She doesn’t wait for confirmation, but steps out into the corridor, hands locked to her stolen gun. It’s been a lot of years since her time on the frontier. A lot of years nowhere near a firing range.
So many doors. Segment 29 is almost at the far end of the train, and VELVET has not suddenly gained any fitness. She half expects to be incinerated by a bomb before she can get anywhere close. Rationally, of course, the damage would largely be inside the train’s body.
She enters the dining car, and one of the passengers tries to stop her with a question. “I’m sorry, this matter is extremely urgent, please let me through—“
“Is that blood?” someone asks. A baby is crying—must be someone well-connected, not to surrender it to a State creche for Engineering assessment.
She can’t stop. She pushes them aside. They can explain later, when the threat is over.
The next compartment has a window. Outside, the train lights illuminate a rocky wall rushing by—far too fast. The train judders, making it hard to stand. What is the pilot doing?
You’re holding on to a strand of… something. Cartilage? The pilot is laughing, and laughing, and the train is rushing forwards.
The burst of speed ends, and you are hurled forwards, flattened on the front of the vesicle. Shreds of torn cilia float about you, but of course, she can regrow them now just as quickly.
“I can never thank you enough for this.” she says. “Please, I’d love to talk—actually talk!—later, when this is over. But right now, I think you’re needed…”
CERULEAN reaches out a hand, and helps you towards the back of the vesicle. The pilot twists around to watch you go… and then, back into the darkness, the injector pod just where you left it.
It takes you a number of minutes to cough out all the goop in your lungs. The rest, your body can devour somehow. NAUTILUS is already there, standing at the controls with her eyes politely averted.
CERULEAN puts a hand on your shoulder. She’s very shiny, now. When she moves, the vesicle fluid forms wet films as it slides off.
She glances down. Yes, you’re both—“Not now.” she says, but kisses you. The vesicle fluid tastes slightly salty on her tongue and lips.
No time to get washed and dressed. You both activate your VECTOR engines. “Let’s go along the outside.” you say. “Less in the way… if the pilot keeps this thing still.”
CERULEAN smiles. “That’s not a bad idea.” She gestures towards another emergency hatch, and together, you break the seal of rust and push it open.
The last thing you see inside the train is NAUTILUS, smiling.
There is an assailant above them, firing one of their own weapons.
GORSE can’t see the attacker. Could be another traitor from their squad. Could be the enemy with a stolen weapon. Regardless, she carefully withdraws a flashbang, glances to WEFT, who nods.
She comes up the ladder in three jumps. The assailant has ducked into a compartment, firing blindly around a corner. A lucky shot glances off her carapace.
She steps away from the lader, making way for WEFT. The assailant has exhausted her ammunition—now. She sprints to the doorway and fires quickly. Her enemy collapses.
GORSE drops into cover over the still-warm body, scanning the corridor for any further enemies. Where is WEFT? He should have been right behind her.
She pulls a switch on her carapace, increasing the dose of anti-panic drugs in her system.
No enemies in sight. She prods the body with her foot, eliciting a groan. Briefly, she considers a summary execution, but the Investigator presiding made a big deal about the lack of intelligence so… she’ll let fate decide.
“Shooter neutralised. There could be more. Where are you, WEFT?”
The train starts moving again. The acceleration is less severe, this time.
The explosives. She needs to arm the explosives, before these mad rebels take her too far away. She doesn’t know how they corrupted the pilot, doesn’t know why the train is moving so strangely, doesn’t know where the VECTORs came from… but she knows her duty. She cannot surrender to terrorists.
“Up there. In a compartment.” WEFT’s voice, from below.
Another traitor. The drugs aren’t doing enough. She prepares to fire on whoever she sees first.
CERULEAN shrugs, throwing the torn pieces of the explosive device aside. “We’d have found that out, one way or another. But fine, he lives. Keep him still, will you?”
CHIASMUS nods, keeping her BLADE levelled at the arbitrator. Behind her, the tunnel they bored into the train’s carapace is slowly filling with white threads. At this rate, healing will take hours, but it is unambiguously VECTOR healing. CHIASMUS was right with her theory.
CERULEAN wonders how it feels to the pilot. Then she remembers NEMATODE, and tries not to think too much about that.
Nothing like a fight to clear her head. She springs up the ladder, bouncing off the ceiling. Automatic fire chases her up the wall, punches through her face, but it doesn’t matter. She springs forward and punches her BLADE through the arbitrator’s carapace. It takes seconds.
Her enemy slumps. There, underneath her…
CERULEAN’s breath catches. Viv.
The train turns. Here, the little box in her skull would have said, you will go right. And the pilot turns left. Such a simple act, but it thrills her even more than that burst of acceleration, more than her new body, more than seeing two beautiful VECTORs swimming around in her vescile.
It is a long way to OPHANIM, and to do so stealthily as a train seems wildly implausible. But she can do it. She has her freedom.
What name should she take, now she’s a VECTOR?
She knows her answer. She tries it out: “CROSSROADS.”
That sounds just about perfect.