The engineer sits calmly.
Her three surviving arbitrators crouch beside the bulky door of the caboose. Reinforced as it is, even a VECTOR won’t be able to punch through it without giving the engineer ample warning. She catches the occasional glance her way—they must think she has some plan, some dark secret of her art that can disable their enemy.
In a properly equipped laboratory, with months to work, perhaps they might even be right.
The engineer raises the tea to her lips. Ripples run across the surface. The train must be going very fast if the shock absorbers are unable to keep up. She admires the extra joints in her fingers.
“Can’t you do something!?” The expression of genuine horror in CHIASMUS’s voice is heartbreaking. This must be the first time she’s really seen a comrade die. It is not, however, making it easier for CERULEAN to work.
“Just keep her airway clear!” Not that it makes much difference at this point.
The arbitrators do not use metal bullets, but something engineered, some nasty, bony little creation of a State weapons lab. It unfolded rapidly inside Viv’s body, producing an exit wound more than large enough for CERULEAN’s fist. The cabin is soaked in blood from the dead arbitrator’s arterial spray. Judging by this wound… surely as much comes from Viv.
CERULEAN has applied pressure, attempted to staunch the bleeding with part of CERULEAN’s clothes, but an abdominal wound of this size is fatal. Viv is already in shock. CERULEAN is drawing a blank. As thorough as NEMATODE was with her little demonstrations, her training was much more concerned with inflicting injuries than curing them.
“Can’t we… you know. Do what I did! Make her a VECTOR?” There is a note of panic in CHIASMUS’s voice.
“If she was conscious, maybe.” More likely the attempt would kill her. Especially with the remnants of the bullet doing who knows what inside her body.
“Isn’t it worth trying?”
Someone coughs. It’s all CERULEAN can do to not let go of the injury and spin round, BLADE ready. But no. It must be the arbitrator who surrendered.
“Hey!” CHIASMUS has a better view of the doorway. “You much good at first aid?”
The arbitrator’s voice is faltering. “I have clotting drugs. It can buy time. In the caboose, there’s…”
“Just get over here!”
CERULEAN shifts to allow the man’s bulky carapace past her shoulders. He does something with his glove, and part of the shell pops open, revealing a rack of vials. Rapidly, he tears one out and breaks it in his hands, pouring the contents directly onto the wound.
CERULEAN’s hand tingles slightly. An excruciating minute passes, all parties holding their breath. Then, she feels a stiff shell forming around her fingers.
She pulls away, and is relieved not to be greeted by another torrent of blood. Viv is still slumped, her breathing weak.
“All right.” CERULEAN says. “I’ll listen. What’s in the caboose?”
A tapping at the door. A short, coded message.
The arbitrators glance at each other.
“Well, hurry up. They have injured!” the engineer says. She places the teacup back on the table, clinking softly. The spell broken, her soldiers rush to disengage the lock, relief plain on their faces.
Two blood-soaked VECTORs burst in.
The arbitrators go for their guns. Too late. There is no flurry of BLADEs. Just precise punches, the cracking of carapace and bone. Grapples, holds.
“Engineer. Stand down.” says one of the VECTORs. The one at the back, who—come to think of it—does not move like a soldier.
Another arbitrator steps into the room. His drug shuttle is hanging open. Balanced on his back is…
Ah. So they weren’t lying about the injured personnel. Helpful.
You look down at the groaning arbitrator under your feet, shaking your hand to remove the fragments of carapace. Right through the joint between helmet and thoracic segment, just like CERULEAN said. These unarmed techniques are far from nonlethal, but you did tell WEFT you’d make an effort.
The engineer is wearing a prim, silky black dress, like most members of her office. Long gloves, also black. Fingers with a few extra joints. A shaved head, an intricate tattoo representing the techniques she’s mastered.
Your mother would wear something just like it when she went to work.
You stare at the engineer’s tattoo, trying to discern the meaning of the symbols. Black, white, yellow, red… your mother’s only went up to yellow. A tongue, with an eyeball on it. That must be the symbol of her specific order.
“Hello, VECTORs.” The engineer does not smile. “I am Theosebeia, Engineer Rubedo. In accordance with the laws of war, I am conditionally willing to surrender into your custody and treat your injured comrade.”
“Conditionally!?” CERULEAN says, beside you. She places a hand on her VECTOR engine.
“You require my cooperation, do you not?” The engineer smiles, without reaching her eyes. “What I ask is very simple. A sample of flesh from each VECTOR, for the purposes of my research. And a promise that I will be allowed to leave the train alive once your comrade is stable.”
“Flesh!” you say, before CERULEAN can speak. “Whatever for?”
“Do you know how hard it is to work on VECTORs!?” The placid engineer’s voice takes on a sudden fervour. “You are the pinnacle of the Art, and the powers that be squirrel you away in secret. There is so much that I could accomplish.”
“And if we don’t want to be part of your little experiment?”
“Kill me. Let your friend die.” She shrugs. “What’s a litte more death? But don’t take too long to think about it. I don’t think she has long…”
CERULEAN and CHIASMUS are standing outside the thick door. WEFT is watching the engineer. It seems like a risk, but you need to confer.
“We do it.” CHIASMUS says. “She can have a piece of me, to save Viv. I don’t who she was to CORAL, but…”
“Yeah. We do it. And we kill her after she’s done.” CERULEAN shrugs. “Who’s to know? I don’t want her making any more little slaves from me.”
As she expects, CHIASMUS grimaces. She waits for a retort. Better that CHIASMUS know her for who she is, and let go of that romantic image of the righteous VECTOR who never breaks her word.
To her surprise, CHIASMUS just nods. She swallows. “Let’s… let Viv decide?”
CERULEAN lets out the breath she didn’t realise she was holding.
CHIASMUS smiles slightly, and reaches for her. She leans into the kiss, and they wait there for just a minute.
They step back into the room.
The engineer flexes her long, long fingers.