chapter NINTH

VELVET opens her eyes.

She recognises the tiny cabin… her tiny cabin. Not as she left it. A pale, slightly slimy tube runs from her wrist, connecting her to some sort of chunky, groaning machine. Small sacs expand and contract, pumping something into her blood.

She feels light. Her back is a wall of pain, but moving seems like far too much effort. Idly, she follows the tube with her eyes. It splits, again and again, disappearing into a web of connections… it must touch every part of her body. She’s too tired to follow each one.

The haze holds her for an indeterminate time. Vibrations run through the cabin, shaking the dust and sending dull waves of pain up her back. Finally, the latch moves with a soft whunk, and the door grinds open.

Lotus shuffles in. She’s carrying a matte white cylinder. She glances at Viv, her face tired… then dashes to her bedside with a start.

“Hey…” she says softly.

Viv smiles back. Her mouth feels dry, like sand. With some effort, she manages to cough. “Hey, Lotus…” she manages. “How long’s it been?”

Lotus squeezes her hand. “Weeks, Viv.” she says. “You’ve basically had your whole body rebuilt. You’re just in time actually… we’re almost there.”

Weeks… Viv tries to remember where she was going.

Lotus grabs Viv’s phone on the wall. “Hey Verbs, get your butt here. And grab Theose–whateveritwas. She’s awake!” She lowers the phone. “You’ve got a lot to catch up on, Viv.”

CROSSROADS opens her eyes.

CHIASMUS is right in front of her, meeting her gaze with a soft smile. The cilia play around her shoulders, giving her a kind of halo. Her hands are so strong and warm… very different from the feeling of passengers on her back, or the rough manipulations of the technicians.

Most of the technicans. But remembering her is a knot of painful feelings that CROSSROADS can only flinch away from. CHIASMUS gives her arm a squeeze, pulling her back to the present.

CHIASMUS is as inexperienced as her, which is, honestly, something of a relief. The thick fluid in the sensory vesicle makes it very difficult for her partner to talk back, but touch can communicate a lot. Instead, they’ve mostly talked through the computer. CHIASMUS found a place she could crawl inside of CROSSROADS’ train body and maintain a signal, and she’s enjoyed finding things to say that will make the other VECTOR giggle and squirm, the vibrations it sends through the insect muscles…

VECTORisation has made her a lot more sensitive, which has, admittedly, some drawbacks. She can feel every bump in the tunnel, each time her many legs catch and trip. But that’s good, really. She wants to remember every part of this journey.

Especially the bits where CHIASMUS comes to visit.

Somehow, the process of VECTORisation managed to extend her body a little further out of the train. Where, before, she met train-flesh from the waist down, now her body has built itself a pelvis, legs, and — CROSSROADS is particularly delighted to have discovered — both a penis and a vagina, blending together without a hint of suture lines. (When she asked, CERULEAN told her that this wan’t entirely uncommon for VECTORs, though it usually takes a little encouragement with a knife to get the VECTOR healing process to settle in the right way.) Further down, the stalk connecting her to her train parts shows the hint of knees.

“What happens if you cut me out?” she’d asked, one time. “Would the train die?” The other two VECTORs could not answer, so she turned to Theosebeia. And though the Engineer had no immediate answer to give her, she’d promised to find one — on the condition of carrying out a few experiments. Now she has sensor lines running almost everywhere, all running back to the workshop which, she’s told, has completely subsumed the dining car.

CHIASMUS swims closer, and works an arm round CROSSROADS’s waist. Her lips taste like the fluid in the vesicle—slightly sweet, slightly too clean—but the feeling of touch rolls through CROSSROADS, a bubble of contentment. It’s still so new, and CROSSROADS can’t get enough.

A message impinges on her consciousness. She enjoys being held for a moment more, before letting her voice form in the vescile: “Viv’s up!”

CERULEAN opens her eyes.

It’s late in the day, as far as daytime means anything, this far underground. She’s been having dreams again… dreams of the pillar girls, to whom she connected so briefly in the catastrophic encounter with NEMATODE. Vivid dreams: she can remember their faces, remember them talking to her, saying things she could never have imagined in her brief encounter.

Her cabin has a private sink and mirror—a luxury she never enjoyed in her time in the State’s dragoons. VECTOR face makeup had been, like everything else, tightly regulated and monitored, though her comrades still found plenty of ways to make it their own. It had been something of a game: find ways to fool the IRIS, but not a VECTOR eye. Someone had invented a kind of radioactive face paint which only other VECTORs could see.

VECTORs, pillar girls… they all found ways to keep going.

She stares at her face, squinting slightly. It’s been looking increasingly odd, day by day… softening in some ways, features moving around… At first, she’d just attributed it to a change of diet. Train food had turned out to be mostly derived from a secretion of the bug itself, somehow emanating from the mysterious power source deep inside.

What was that, anyway? It couldn’t be a Furnace — the weight and space requirements would be impossible, not to mention the expense. But to move that much muscle and metal must take some kind of power source… CORAL would surely be able to explain it, but CORAL is not here. Perhaps one of the Industrials on the train… no doubt it’s already come up in one of NAUTLIUS’s long, rambling tours.

Too many questions, rattling around in her head like coins in a drum. But it helps to think about those, and not the much thornier question: what would she say to the other VECTORs they were travelling to see, and how in fuck is she going to rescue CORAL? It’s all too much, and CERULEAN has been sleepwalking throug her days, eating only lightly, answering questions minutes after they’re spoken. CHIASMUS has been holding her, helping where she can, but there’s only so much she can do.

Perhaps she could ask them for help. Since they’re along for the ride.

CERULEAN blinks. Where did that thought come from? Who are ‘they’?

And then it clicks. The dreams, her changing face…

She speaks out loud, to the empty room. “You’re… the pillar girls? You’re inside me?”

That’s right… and it starts to become clear, which thoughts are hers, and which belong to them. Somewhere inside her, a nodule of someone else, or many someones… not just a memory, but a set of minds…

She has to sit down.

CORAL opens her eyes.

She lowers her arms from the stretch, enjoying the warmth on her face. The sun has just risen, casting the steppe into a beautiful spread of pastel light. It gleams off the bug-carapace buildings, the distant river, the frost melting on the ground.

She squeezes her wrists. So skinny… a non-VECTOR would have passed out from starvation weeks before. But she won’t let that happen. Not until NEMATODE is destroyed, and she’s found CERULEAN again, and OPHANIM, Viv, Nauts, the kids on the train…

Will they even recognise her, in this state? Will CERULEAN want her back? She squashes the thought.

Behind her, the three not-VECTORs shuffle out of their dilapidated dwelling. “First girl” trills softly, stretching her strange legs to enjoy the sunlight. CORAL feels another wave of embarassment for wanting to murder and eat her. Close beside her, “second girl” offers an arm to help her navigate the slippery ground, bone-littered ground.

“So where to?” CORAL says, as lightly as she can manage. There’s a knot in her throat.

“There’s a caravan due to come by…” second girl says. CORAL averts her gaze from the NEMATODE-face on her chest. They’d explained the situation the night before: to travel away from here with any chance of success, they’d need food. But the nomads would not give it up to strangers without some sort of exchange… and perhaps CORAL could offer them some service?

CORAL knows she’s good for three things: violence, sex, and reactor maintenance. Discounting the third, she probably could get them what they need… and maybe even a way out of here. It would be the right thing to do. She hopes it’s not killing they want…

Slowly, they make their way to what used to be some kind of town square. A battered, bullet-scarred monument stands at the centre, an overgrown stack of bones in its shadow. A mass execution? CORAL imagines a solemn crowd watching, the soldiers taking aim with rifles under the stern gaze of the statue, the forgotten feelings that these people must have held in their last moments. A riot breaking out, chemical shells exploding, the bodies left where they lay as a message…

It’s probably not what happened.

Second girl helps first girl to a bench, scrapes a space in the thick covering of moss. Third girl disappeared at some point.

It doesn’t take long for their interlocutor to arrive. A blue-grey strider, bedecked in bright ribbons, its rider similarly covered head to toe in layers of clashing fabric. First girl leaps to her feet, trilling excitedly. CORAL keeps her hand near her VECTOR engine… it wouldn’t hurt to be cautious.

The rider stops at the edge of the square, and raises their hand in a wary greeting. They dismount, and carefully lead their strider down the short incline into the square, feet squelching in pooling, fetid water. CORAL can see the way they turn their body away, their hand hovering near their hip. A gun, then. She keeps her own hands clearly visible.

The rider stops, a respectful distance away, and with one hand unfastens the cloth veil hanging over their face. Now they’re closer, CORAL can see that the mask is painted with an intricate pattern of eyeballs in various colours. Behind it, a broad nose, soft features, an intricate pattern of tattoos—more eye-like designs, on the cheeks and forehead.

“You’re a new face.” The rider speaks in the State’s language clearly, but with a distinctive accent, stumbling on certain consonants. They take a moment to size CORAL up. “Well, you don’t look too quarrelsome. Please, call me Mote. I speak for, hmm, how to translate this… let’s call us the Witnesses.”

CORAL nods, wondering what gestures are appropriate in a situation like this. Belatedly, she realises she should introduce herself back. “My name is CORAL. I speak for… myself? And possibly these three.”

Mote laughs, gently. “Then I am glad to meet you, CORAL of yourself-and-these-three. I take it you are another one of the errors of that place, in the ground?” CORAL grimaces. Mote raises their hands, placatingly. “I mean no offence. I am glad each time they err! It means their designs are thwarted one day longer.”

The strider snuffles, raises its short trunk to gently sniff at CORAL. Clearly a few generations removed from the attention of a State engineer—the colouring about the nose is distinctly non-regulation.

“Right, well, then…” CORAL tries to smile. “I suppose I am an error, might as well get used to it! But before I came here, I was already fighting the State… I fought with OPHANIM, in the rebellion.” This merits a raised eyebrow. “You know of her?”

“The name is not familiar.” Damn. But, it was a long shot… “But you must be a ‘VECTOR’, then. How splendid! If even a few of those stories are true, you must be quite formidable.”

CORAL inclines her head slightly. Play it cool.

“It pains me to see that you’ve fallen on such hard times, CORAL. Pray, would you be a guest at our fire?”

CORAL glances at her new companions. “If these three can come also?”

“But of course!” The expression on first girl’s face suggests it has very much not been an ‘of course’ before now. “Come! It’s not so far.”

Theosebeia opens her eyes.

Slowly, the afterimages of her inner-eyelid readouts fade from her vision. Her patient, who secured her life up until now, sits propped up, fingers clasped around a hot cup of something resembling tea. Theosebeia has learned a great deal about trains since bargaining with these rebels. To think, such methods could date as far back as the Harsh Century…

She can feel the gaze of a VECTOR boring into her neck. CERULEAN… the State-trained one. The one who most obviously wants her dead. Theosebeia is ready for her.

“Well.” she says, “I don’t need to perform any further checks. If any of those lights change colour, contact me at once.”

“Now…” Theosebeia smiles at the two VECTORs leaning on the far wall, making sure to show her teeth. “If you two would come with me, I believe we have a matter of payment to discuss.”

She steps out the door, and sets off towards her makeshift workshop as if nothing is amiss. The door opens and shuts behind her. She stops.

“I would put that down if I were you.” she says, calmer than she’s feeling. A slight shift in the air. Her guess was right. “If I die, your dear comrade dies with me. Was this all for nothing?”

A hiss of anger. She waits for the BLADE to land. It would be so easy to miscalculate: they could call her bluff… the logistics of transmitting a signal through the train would be beyond her, but neither of these girls seems particularly informed about the practicalities of Engineering.

CERULEAN appears in front of her. She’s gripping her VECTOR engine, knuckles white, the faintest trace of potential suggesting a BLADE barely held in check. It’s enough.

“My terms are the same.” Theosebeia says. “Two more samples of flesh, and I safely leave the train.”

“More?” The voice is behind her. CHIASMUS.

“CROSSROADS has already been quite cooperative. And may I say, what an accomplishment!” To think that such different generations of Engineering would interoperate on such a level… but she can’t get distracted.

She steps forward towards her workshop. Abruptly, CERULEAN’s blade is in front of her, a millimetre from her neck.

“CERULEAN! Please, for fuck’s sake!” CHIASMUS again. Theosebeia lets the drama play out. “Hell, For CORAL’s sake.”

“Don’t!” CERULEAN’s voice is acid. “She wouldn’t accept this.”

“For Viv’s sake then. And CROSSROADS We have a home here… We don’t have to kill her.”

“Oh…” CERULEAN suddenly grins, too wide. “We don’t have to kill her!”

“I can—” Theosebeia doesn’t get to add another lie. Searing pain ricochets across her body. Mutely, she watches herself fall to the ground, cut tendons and oozing blood. CORAL flicks her sword, disappears it…

Theosebeia blacks out.

You open your eyes.

And then, because it’s dripping, you wipe away some of the blood coating your face. Where Theosebeia was standing… well, she’s there, but collapsed, a broken puppet. Three slick cuts, before you could blink.

“Get her to that life support machine.” CERULEAN says, still smiling with that dreadful, enticing satisfaction. Not the time… “Quickly! If you want to keep Viv alive.”

You get to it, helping CERULEAN heft the engineer’s limp body. “Ce, I get it, I do but… we could have fucking discussed this!”

CERULEAN, thankfully, calms a little. “You’re right, that was… fuck. Fuck. I’m sorry, CHIASMUS. That was fucking reckless.”

You manage to nod. One of you has to keep her emotions under control, and apparently it’s you.

CERULEAN glances back at the broken Engineer in her hands, contempt and anger flickering over her face. “I can’t let her have what she wants. I’m done making that bargain.”

You open your mouth, shut it. “We are where we are.” Which is to say, severe blood loss, possible head injury… better hope she was bluffing.

Lotus pops out of the room and gasps. “What!.. you know what, I don’t need to know. Get her over here! Quickly!” You hear a clattering from inside the room. “Sorry Viv. Seems this room is turning into a brig.”

The next few minutes are occupied with a rush of first aid, shouted instructions, cylinders and tubes going this way and that. You see NAUTILUS helping Viv leave the room, Verbena on his back fiddling with the machine. By the end of it, the engineer’s wounds are dressed, her blood-soaked dress replaced with a hospital gown, and the life support machine has resumed its ticking.

Lotus grabs your wrist, tightly. CERULEAN as well. You could easily pull away, but you let her drag you to a bench.

“What happened out there!?” she says. “I can’t deal with this—first you come and tell me she’s our ally, then you cut her down the minute her work is done? What’s going on? It’s not just you who’s fighting this war!”

CERULEAN grimaces, says nothing. You speak. “We made… a bargain. One we never really intended to keep. She… threatened Viv. Told us…” you swallow. “Told us, if she dies, Viv goes with her.”

“So you did this to her!?” Lotus stares you in the eye. You try to hold her gaze. But you’re ashamed, once again. CERULEAN is still saying nothing, but you can feel the anger radiating from her.

You have to explain yourself. Lotus is much younger than you, but you have the uncomfortable feeling of your mums confronting you over the VECTOR obsession.

“She was going to… she was going to take parts of our bodies, and use it to make more VECTORs, under her control. CERULEAN wouldn’t… couldn’t ever let that happen.”

Lotus takes a deep breath, lets it out.

“OK.” she says. “OK, I think I see how… how we got here.” She shakes her head. “But, honestly… there’s a lot that I think you’ll have to explain, before we get where we’re going. I think… I’m well past done with secrets.”

OPHANIM opens her eyes.

OPHANIM opens her eyes.

OPHANIM opens her eyes.

OPHANIM has a lot of eyes. A lot of faces.

The train is here, at last.

NEMATODE closes her eyes.

The Director is, mercifully, not here. For now. NEMATODE thinks she’s found the mole, but how can she be sure there’s not another? But she has to act, and act now.

Through her other, more distant eyes, NEMATODE sees her plans unfolding. CORAL is meeting some nomad… and somehow, she seems to have found a few of the castoffs. Perhaps she could be given a little help along the way… Good, loyal POLYTOPE is in the lab, preparing the device, proud to have been trusted.

The VECTORs, at least, have been relatively easy to sway to NEMATODE’s side. The Investigators, on the other hand, are all suspect. The various Industrials and other servitors, well… they’ll come around, when it comes to it.

What NEMATODE is considering is treason, of course. But it’s not like the obtuse recalcitrance of the rebels. The State’s leadership is unfit for purpose. The robust, elegant machine which survived the harsh century has become corrupted, clattering about madly, unable to see what has to be done. It’s past time someone competent took control.

But she’s been embarassed once. It won’t happen again.

NEMATODE opens her eyes. There’s work to be done.