“Any word?”

Cirrina looks up from the computer with bleary eyes. Shakes her head. There are large bags under her eyes, a fuzz of unshaven hair starting to cover her Engineer’s tatoos. Eledone moves towards her, gently rests a hand on her shoulder. The movement causes one of the nearby piles to collapse, scattering Jermaine’s belongings all over the floor.

On the screen, a message board—something or other to do with the VECTORs. The light of the screen casts everything in soft shades of green. Eledone has been avoiding the news, though it’s impossible to miss the broad strokes. Rebel VECTORs attacked, somehow igniting the shattered FURNACE on the outskirts of town. A roadway collapsed, by unknown means. The provincial Governor and the commander of the Arbitrators both resigned in disgrace. Checkpoints on each major street, as if they’d be anything but an inconvenience to a VECTOR. Anti-FURNACE protests, a curfew.

Who gives a shit about any of that, though?

Jermaine is gone. There are two possibilities. Both are too terrible to consider. Perhaps he made good on his dreams of running away—presumably to pursue his incomprehensible, immature obsession with the VECTOR program. Or perhaps he died in the fighting. Either way, given the strings Eledone had to pull to keep his application from being accepted, it is hard to shake the feeling that this is very much her fault.

Cirrina pushes her hand away. “Not now.” She stands, and makes to pick up some of the scattered detritus. VECTOR figurines, dubious patriotic magazines and rotting, equally dubious seditionist pamphlets, a startling amount of drug paraphernalia. It’s not like he never made his obsessions clear. Would he have grown up normally, in a crèche with the other children? Did she and Cirrina doom him through isolation?

Eledone steps in to help Cirrina clean up. Some of the material was taken as evidence by the Investigator—though evidence of what, she’s far from sure. The rest, they should put away in boxes somewhere. Put the housing unit back in some semblance of order.

After a while, her wife speaks. “They’re saying there’s a third one with the rebels. On that message board.”

A third one? “Love. Please… I don’t want to hear any more about VECTORs. Not now.” Eledone says. She doesn’t want to know where this thought ends.

Cirrina presses on. “Do you know how they make people into VECTORs? They’re saying…”

“Darling. Please, this is painful enough. Jermaine’s lost somewhere, or hurt… let’s not cook up wild fantasies.” Eledone grips her leggings, feels the press of her nails. Her arms were a gift—custom work from Cirrina. She tries to remember how it felt to receive them.

Cirrina shakes her head, slowly. “Sorry. You’re right. It’s a stupid thought.” Abruptly, she stands, and walks briskly out of the room.

A few minutes later, Eledone hears her muffled sobbing.

Cirrina is furious. At everyone, and nobody in particular.

No, that’s a lie. Mostly, she’s furious with Jermaine.

She has returned to work, although in a reduced capacity. At her rank, she can afford to take time off for grief. Not that it does her reputation among the Engineers any favours.

Of course, there is still no word from Jermaine. The news is full of reports on the crackdown: a purge of scavengers in districts bordering the major inhabited areas, seizure of seditionist presses, a moratorium on protests against (or indeed for) the new FURNACE. But no sign of Jermaine, or even his body.

Outside the bubble of her scuttler, she sees downturned glances and morose faces.

They’d given Jermaine everything. With the educational opportunities they’d given him, he could have been assigned almost any clade he’d pleased. But over and over again, he threw it all away, until all he had left was slopping out a stable. Even there, it was hard to get him to bother.

Now, he won’t even deign to tell her and Eledone if he’s still alive. Well, let him rot. If he wants to chase VECTORs so badly, he can die doing it.

She wipes away a tear, leaving a smear of makeup on her glove. Pathetic.

The Investigator comes knocking late in the night. Eledone opens the door in her nightgown, and hurries to pour him some hot drinks. She calls Cirrina, and anxiously they watch him across the table.

“Lady Engineer, thank you for receiving me at such an hour.” he says. “We have found evidence. Genetic, primarily. I have good news, and extremely bad news.”

Eledone swallows. Cirrina squeezes her hand under the table.

“The good news,” he continues, “is that your son appears to be alive—at least, as of a couple of days ago. He has been hiding in an abandoned district, in an unused house. Although he left, we expect to find him very soon.”

Eledone deflates. Relief, anger, it’s all too much. But the Investigator holds up a hand.

“The more unfortunate news…” he says, “is that your son appears to have taken up with a group of terrorist VECTORs.”

Cirrina is standing. Her chair falls behind her with a clatter. Eledone can’t process what she’s saying. This makes no sense.

“That can’t be right.” she finds herself saying, almost a whisper, but Cirrina stops to let her speak. “It can’t be. He was… disaffected. Sad. Weirdly obsessed with the military. Not a terrorist. Maybe he’s a hostage?”

The Investigator frowns, shakes his head slowly. “I’m afraid, ma’am, that our evidence strongly suggests he has somehow become a VECTOR himself. Or, I suppose, herself.”

“Himself.” Cirrina says, forcefully. “I won’t give any credence to this delusion. He is my son!”

A nod. “Of course, ma’am. Well, it probably goes without saying, but this investigation should remain a secret. We do not hold either of you under suspicion, but given the stakes of this situation, we would appreciate your full cooperation.”

“You have it.” Cirrina scowls. “Anything you need. Just… bring him back to me alive.”

The Investigator stands, and smirks a little sardonically. “Under the circumstances, ma’am, I don’t think there’s any other option.”