CORAL is walking.
Her memories of the facility have become a jumbled blur, snatches of pain and images of burned flesh which appear when she closes her eyes. Where was she taken? If she knew the landmarks, knew how to follow the stars, she might lead her comrades back to this prison, storm the place, free whoever else is trapped there.
But she’s never been here. This land is as anonymous as the torturers.
She’s been walking for a week. Now she can see the passage of night and day, she’s been keeping count obsessively, scratching the tally into her arm again and again as her body erases the marks. All she’s seen in that time is scrubby grass and gorse cut by freezing streams, distant mountains that never seem to get any closer.
Since she joined OPHANIM, she’s fought in many places—but all of them, on some level, the same. Pillar girls, pustule-like houses atop radiation-hardened burrows, scavengers scurrying at night. Some of them hot and dry, some cold and wet, but all of them stamped with the State’s marks.
They must have taken her to the very edge of the State’s territory, perhaps even outside of it. Why? Torturing rebels could hardly be a secret. She chews on this question, but comes no closer to an answer.
Now and then, a State aircraft comes overhead, swooping over the steppe in low circles. CORAL considers using her stolen VECTOR engine to go on the attack, springing up into the sky to seize control of the aircraft, but she still feels utterly depleted. No doubt they have VECTORs on board, anyway. So whenever the aircraft comes too close, she hides in one of the streams, feeling it slowly warm from the radiation leaking out of her body. And so far, well… they haven’t found her.
After nine days, she reaches the village.
NEMATODE salutes stiffly. The Director is not looking at her, which somehow manages to be even more disconcerting than having those hexagon pupils fix in her direction. Anticipation, perhaps.
“Sir. You wished to see me?” She can’t help but let a note of disapproval slip into her voice. CORAL has been making reasonable progress across the steppe, NEMATODE’s secret making up for any deficiencies in their tracking materiel. The missing train is more of a concern. But that was all covered in her report. Why call her personally to the Director’s office, at such an hour?
The Director remains silent for slightly longer than is comfortable.
She does not fidget. It would be beneath her.
“Tell me.” the Director says, eventually. “This ‘runaway train’. What do you suppose happened?”
“Sir.” NEMATODE swallows. What is the purpose of this question? “I’ve reported the available theories from our consultant engineers. They give the greatest odds that the terrorists have some novel technological means to intercept control signals—effective on both the Infrastructurals and the train system.”
The Director’s lip curls. “How predictably unimaginative. But I did not ask what the consultant engineers think. What is your opinion, NEMATODE?”
“You mean, as CERULEAN’s instructor, sir?” This must be leading somewhere, but the Director seems determined to lead NEMATODE through this game.
“I mean, as what you are.” Now the Director’s eyes fix on NEMATODE. Her pupils seem to twist, like the aperture of a camera. “How would a VECTOR try to take control of a train?”
“Well.” As if all VECTORs think, feel and act the same. If that were the case, there wouldn’t even be a war. “The most obvious route would be to compromise the train pilot. Convince her of their misguided project.”
The Director nods. “And your inquiries into this pilot have shown?”
“She wouldn’t take much convincing. A number of infractions on record, despite multiple rounds of Rehabilitation.” This was all in the report, but the Director seems to want to hear her say it. “In fact, an Arbitrator unit was moving to apprehend a seditionist cell we had discovered on board the train, just prior to the incident. I doubt they could have remained undetected for long, without the pilot’s at least tacit support.”
“And yet. This theory has been ruled out. Why?”
“The pilot had a restraint device implanted into her spinal column. With it attached, she could not break from the official route. Removing it would have killed her.”
“Indeed.” The director smiles. It does not reach her eyes. “So, NEMATODE. Why do you think VECTORs have not been fitted with such a device? It would save us all a lot of trouble, don’t you think?”
One day ago, it was a dark smudge on the horizon. Now, as CORAL stalks the silent street, it finally resolves itself. The buildings are hardly the standard design: none of the bony trees produced by the pillar girls, none of the egg-like pods that typically fill a residential area.
No, the buildings here appear to have begun life as the shells of large bugs. Something very close to a train, if the segments never suffered the end-to-end grafting process. Each house boasts striking antlers of glossy keratin, though the effect is rather diminished by the dirt and plant life coating every surface.
The street is just as overgrown. Organic muck sucks at CORAL’s bare feet—the original paving more of a gesture. Here and there, a small patch of taller grass.
An impulse strikes her. She steps up to one of these taller patches, digs in the muck with a foot. Sure enough, her toe finds something hard: an eye socket, the hint of teeth.
Carefully, she brushes the muck back on top of the unmarked grave. Whoever killed these people must not have bothered to move them, and they rotted where they lay. Usually, a scavenger would quickly come to crack these bones for marrow, but the rules must be different here.
She ducks into one of the buildings—no reason to pick one over the other. The entrance has been roughly sawn through the bug’s carapace. If it once held a door, it must have rotted away.
Inside, the stench of mould is much stronger. Dark moss covers every surface, in every colour of a very subdued rainbow. In the centre of the room, a small mound appears to have been a cooking pot, now just flakes of rust which dissolve before she can even touch them.
What did she hope to find? A map? A sign saying ‘this way back to OPHANIM’s hidden base’?
After a desultory search, she emerges back into the fading daylight. The air is only slightly fresher, but it’s a relief all the same. If she wasn’t a VECTOR, she’d have a lot of respiratory diseases to think about right now.
Something trills on a nearby street. Even now, her reflexes are good. A BLADE in hand in the space of a breath. CORAL flips herself upwards, and then flattens herself against the back of one of the bug-houses. There…
A scavenger? It looks humanoid, perhaps not too far down the path of transformation. Most of the State’s engineering failures are euthanised and recycled, but occasionally some escape, and multiply in the abandoned parts of the city. When there’s no insurrections to suppress, the Strider cavalry are pest controllers. Whatever it is, it drags itself slowly through the muck, letting out the same faint trill.
CORAL’s stomach rumbles. VECTORs won’t die from starvation, but hunger still impresses an overwhelming need which inhibits most of her other functions. This scavenger is the first living creature she’s seen since her escape. She doesn’t like to eat the scavengers, but in a situation like this?
She drops back down to the street. Even jumping onto that roof has left her exhausted. If NEMATODE caught her now, it would be an even more embarassing repeat of the scene in the furnace.
Softly, mud sucking at her feet, she walks up behind the scavenger. Well, probably ‘behind’. Everything about this creature goes in a different direction. Are those digitigrade legs, or simply backwards? It holds its arms up against its chest, like a mantis. As CORAL reaches striking distance, it abruptly tilts its head backwards to look her in the eye. Its face is drawn, emaciated.
“I’m sorry.” CORAL says. As if it means anything to say so. She cuts the creature in two.
Her breath catches.
Where the upper half has fallen, white threads start to grow, slow but unmistakeable. It must be starving, must be as miserable as her—but she knows exactly what it is.
“You’re a VECTOR!?”
“I’m not sure I know, sir. A technological limitation?” NEMATODE does not allow her face to express anything. Let the Director threaten her all she wants. Most of the pieces are in place, now.
The Director has not stopped smiling. Or leering, perhaps. “Not even a twitch. Oh, you are so good, NEMATODE!” Her behaviour is off. Has she taken some sort of drug? NEMATODE almost pities her.
“Sir.” she says, unsure what else to remark. Perhaps her disgust has reached her face.
The Director does not notice, lost in her story. “You’re right, in a way. Though it’s less a limitation than a contradiction. To try to limit you like that would spoil what makes you work, you know?”
NEMATODE’s body itches. She’s spent so long keeping herself in this shape. “May I ask the purpose of this meeting, sir?”
The Director waves a hand, affably. “Of course. Always to the point! But that’s how we made you. You’re here to help me solve a point of philosophy.”
NEMATODE wants to scream.
“What question is that?”
“Your VECTOR engine. Would you pass it to me?”
“If that is your order, sir.” At this point, her sarcasm is getting dangerously obvious, but NEMATODE unstraps the weapon from her hip holster, and passes it over. The Director holds it curiously, hefts it in her hands, peers intently at the needle connection.
“Does this satisfy your philosophical inquiry, sir?” she ventures. Let the Director play with the toy. It won’t do her any good.
The Director looks back up at her. Her eyes seem to refocus. “Tell me, NEMATODE. Why do you think you’re called VECTORs, anyway?”
NEMATODE frowns. One rhetorical question was already more than enough. “Because the VECTOR engine allows motion along arbitrary vectors?” she ventures.
The Director sighs.
“Another engineer’s answer. Think more fundamentally!”
“Sir. I’m not sure what you’re driving at, and I have duties to attend to.” This is a lie, of course: NEMATODE keeps well ahead on her responsibilities as a commander. But the radiation experiments are so close to fruition. She’s sure of it.
The Director nods slowly, and passes her the VECTOR engine. “Very well, NEMATODE. Perhaps when your duties are less pressing, we can talk again.”
CORAL has taken her erstwhile meal’s legs and shoved them back up against its body. Too late, she realises she’s turned its legs around. The white threads grip onto the not-yet-dead VECTOR flesh, recognise it as self, and the starving VECTOR’s legs start to kick, sending clods of muck into the air.
She lets out her held breath. For a long moment, everything is still. The shadows creep slightly longer.
Abruptly, there is a harsh crack. The VECTOR’s legs rotate a full 180 degrees, settling back into their original, oddly backwards orientation. The skin does not tear, but bulges strangely as muscles remake themselves underneath.
CORAL reaches out her hand, to help it—no, her!—to her feet. The VECTOR blinks at her, unmoving.
“What happened to you?” CORAL says, settling on the muck. It would be impolite to mention that she had been planning to murder this woman and eat her. The VECTOR trills, and then something shifts in her throat, and she coughs abruptly.
“Scrambled. Rad—radiation.” Her voice is a wet whisper, stumbling over the consonants. It seems like it takes a great deal of effort to maintain a functional voicebox. “Who’re?” she manages, and sits up, staring CORAL right in the eye.
That’s more like it.
“You’ve been irradiated?” Does that happen? Her mind leaps to Rugosa, reduced to an oily pillar at the centre of the Furnace, dissolved by her own body’s radiation. “How? What happened?” Perhaps that’s why they’re so far from the State proper—so the immortal errors of their experiments don’t wander anywhere they might cause a fuss.
Her companion doesn’t seem to be able to answer. She struggles to her feet, slipping once. CORAL stands up and offers her a shoulder.
“Come with me. It’s safe.” The girl’s voice emerges again, still a little slurred.
Why would she trust someone who would cut her in half by way of greeting? How long since she last saw a person? CORAL follows, burning with curiosity, more alive than she has felt in a long while.
NEMATODE is back in the Director’s office, all too soon.
“It’s a matter of desire, you see.” The Director is standing uncomfortably close. She points to NEMATODE’s neck. “We could plant a device—right here!—and force you to act exactly as we commanded. Just like a machine. But your body would grow around and over it—just as soon as you wanted something and the device intervened. That’s the nature of your power. Desire is both fuel and the direction.”
She’s stepped out of NEMATODE’s field of vision. NEMATODE suppresses the urge to grow an extra eye to watch her. That really wouldn’t help.
“It used to be called alchemy, you know.” The Director’s voice is quiet in NEMATODE’s ear. “Our art. We formalised it, regularised it, grew clade after clade to suit our purposes. We built our Great Work in the form of the gloriously perfected State.”
“Why are you telling me this, sir?” If this is even true, it’s ancient history—and history the Director was certainly not alive for, whatever her pretensions.
“I need you to understand what you are. You seem to have forgotten.” Abruptly, NEMATODE feels the Director’s hand reaching under her uniform skirt. Before she even thinks, her hand is on the hilt of her VECTOR engine. She wills herself not to cut the Director down right there.
The Director laughs cruelly. She does not let go of NEMATODE’s dick.
“Yes, I thought so. You know, the majority of VECTORs are girls like you! That desperation to change—it is such a potent source of power, especially for those crucial, initial steps.”
“Sir.” NEMATODE is as still as a statue. She could disintegrate this woman—and is running out of reasons not to. “If you want the attention of a pleasure clade, I will have a suitably… equipped individual sent up. But this is not within my duties.”
The Director lets go, and steps away, an awful smirk on her face. “Oh, isn’t it.”
NEMATODE feels the needle enter her hand. She turns her shoulder towards the Director. The slight radiation she can perceive rising from her body now resolves into a lacework of potential BLADEs. If she lose control, even for a second…
She speaks with the same cold fury as when she faced CORAL in the Furnace. “Sir. This is utterly inappropriate, dangerous behaviour. Why are you antagonising me like this?”
The Director leans on her desk, her face again neutral. Her hexagon eyes remain fixed on NEMATODE. “Curiosity. Or perhaps my own terrible pleasures. Does it matter? What are you going to do?”
You’re not fit to run the State, NEMATODE wants to say. You’re no better than the sex-crazed idiots you ask me to shape into a cohesive fighting force. There will be a reckoning.
A BLADE has manifested. Its shape is jagged, irregular. It is hovering behind the Director. She seems entirely unperturbed.
“You see, NEMATODE, you only have yourself to blame. You love to make yourselves desirable. This must be the body you wanted—otherwise you would not be a VECTOR! It’s fascinating—and so very, very useful. Each generation of VECTORs casts its spell on the next! A self-replicating pattern.” She sighs. “But that’s not enough.”
NEMATODE’s lip curls. The BLADE hovering behind the Director twitches. Abruptly, the Director reaches up and grabs it. NEMATODE’s connection severs, like a lost limb, but the BLADE does not disintegrate. The Director turns it over in her hands, tutting.
“This is not at all up to your usual standard, NEMATODE. Do my words bother you that much? Surely you must have known all this, after all your time as an instructor?”
NEMATODE takes a steadying breath. She raises the VECTOR engine to a guard position. Five perfect BLADEs, gunbarrel-straight, angle in on the Director. “You would not taunt me like this if you still had a use for me.”
The Director straightens, smiling with strangely genuine warmth.
“Finally!” she says. “We’re getting somewhere.”
CORAL follows her new companion into another bug, indistinguishable from the others in the nearly-dead light. The inside stinks just as much as the last. She follows her companion by her trail of radiation (how could she not have seen it?) as the other VECTOR steps over the jagged edge of a pit, and hops into a dim tunnel below.
Underneath, it’s at least somewhat warmer than the scrubland above. She reaches out a hand to touch the wall, and finds herself squishing some sort of egg cluster. Further explorations find hard, uncovered earth, shored up by some chitinous substance—most likely fragments of carapace from one of the bugs above. She hurries on to catch up with her companion, who has started bounding along on all fours, trilling rather more enthusiastically than before.
She senses the other VECTORs by their radiation first. Only for a second. Searing light fills the tunnel, utterly overwhelming. A spotlight!—torn from a State aircraft?
CORAL makes no effort to cover her eyes. She waits, patiently. Her companion has run ahead, into the void behind the spotlight. Even VECTOR vision struggles with such an extreme range of brightness.
“My name is CORAL.” she declares, after it seems no challenge is forthcoming. “I know I look fantastic, but perhaps you could turn that down a little?”
A voice comes from behind the light. “You aren’t here to fight?” It is strangely doubled, two speakers in not-quite-synchronicity. Even OPHANIM did not sound like that…
“That depends on you!” CORAL rests her VECTOR engine over her shoulder. No need to summon a BLADE or LANCE. If she’s right, and these misbegotten VECTORs are the result of some dubious experiment, they should not be armed. But VECTORs aren’t known for letting things like ‘impossible odds’ get in their way.
After a little hesitation, the spotlight dims, rendering the scene mildly less chiaroscuro. Silhouettes become slightly more visible in the space behind. CORAL takes a step forward, and when no-one shoots her, another.
“You’ll have to forgive me. We’re not used to talking.” The doubled voice sounds again. CORAL steps out of the spotlight beam, and her eyes adjust.
The backwards-leg VECTOR from above ground is curled around another VECTOR. At first glance, this one seems relatively normal. But then CORAL sees the face embedded right over her sternum, a face that’s all too familiar. NEMATODE. Whenever she speaks, NEMATODE’s mouth moves as well. A second glance shows that her legs are fused together into one smooth whole.
A third VECTOR drops down from the ramshackle frame of the spotlight. This one glistens oddly in the harsh light, as if her body is covered by a thick layer of slime. Her skin seems strangely translucent. She reaches out and touches CORAL’s arms, leaving a trail of white ooze behind her.
All three are emaciated, moving hesitantly, with sudden twitches. They must be surviving on nothing but their own will to live, fed through the VECTOR system to repair their damaged cells. A VECTOR can last indefinitely in this state, but she can’t expect to enjoy it.
CORAL inclines her head respectfully. “I take it you’re no friends of the State.”
Doubled-voice laughs with both her mouths. “No, you could certainly say that.”
Slime-trail spits. “A slug, they made me. Industrial, I was. What think you?”
CORAL raises an eyebrow. “Industrial? You weren’t part of the VECTOR program?”
Backwards-leg hisses. Doubled-voice strokes her gently. “So. She’s moved on to VECTORs now.”
Hmm. “You mean NEMATODE?” They all flinch at that name. “We fought. She captured me. I escaped.”
They all glance at each other. Doubled-voice is the one to say it. “She let you go.”
No, that can’t be right. Has CORAL not been humiliated enough?
“Nonsense.” she finds herself saying. “Why would she?”
Slime-trail shrugs. She lays a wet hand on CORAL’s cheek. The slime is cool. She stares intensely at CORAL’s face. “Eyes different colours.”
That doesn’t sound right. But slime-trail slinks away with no further explanation.
“Who are you three?” CORAL glances between the remaining pair. “I mean, you’re VECTORs… but not like any VECTOR I know.”
“Stop saying it. We’re not VECTORs.” This time, it’s backwards-legs who speaks. “We’re not! We’re not in the war!”
Now she has a better look at her, CORAL can see that backwards-legs has different-coloured eyes. One a fierce blue—a rarity—the other, the usual brown. There is a strange lump on the side of her head with the brown eye, the suggestion of a spiral pattern.
“I’m sorry.” She carefully lowers the VECTOR engine to the ground, and holds her hands out wide. She’s not used to diplomacy. Meet a strange VECTOR, and they want to flirt, fight or fuck, usually all three.
She tries again. “Who are you? Do you have names?”
Doubled-voice shrugs. “None that fit anymore. Do you give names to your rubbish, VECTOR?”
Backwards-leg chimes in. “I’m the first girl. She’s the second girl, by five minutes!” She squeezes doubled-voice’s arm, trilling like she did above ground. Laughter? “And our friend is the third girl.”
Fine. Another line of questioning.
“Where are we, exactly?” CORAL says, looking around. Now her eyes have better adjusted, she can see that the walls of this chamber are the insides of a bug, like the village up above. Some sort of spherical gourd has been stacked in the corner. “Who built this village? How long have you been here? Is there a way back to the State proper?”
Second girl sits in silence, slowly stroking first girl, who seems to be calming down. There’s no sign of where CORAL cut her earlier. CORAL is almost ready to give up and return to the surface, leaving these not-VECTORs to their fate, when second girl finally speaks.
“If I answer your questions, will you help us?”
Finally. CORAL puts on her most dashing grin. “Sure. Whatever you need!”
“All right… I don’t know where we are. Some Southern nomad-land that’s not properly colonised.” An interesting choice of words! “I have no idea who built this village, or who slaughtered them. We’ve been here months, I think. I think the State is over the mountains… at least, that’s where the planes go.”
If she’s somewhere South, that would fit. CORAL has been able to discern, at least, that the mountains are to the North. Dimly, she remembers maps of the State’s territory, the large areas with little population density towards the frozen South. An untamed, uncivilised land, she was told, but the war had put a stop to settlement efforts.
“Nomads, you say.” She knows almost nothing of the people who inhabit these lands. Technically, they’re subjects of the State, but they don’t seem to agree with that assessment. OPHANIM had talked about making links with them, but apparently nothing came of it. “Have you met them?”
“Well. That’s, ah, why we need your help.”
“You want me to kill you.” It’s the only way that the Director’s behaviour makes sense. Except, of course, that that makes no sense at all. A suicidal administrator? They were supposed to be the most balanced clades, most aligned with the implicit will of the State itself.
The Director taps her cane on the ground. “I want you to follow your desires! Is that what you want, NEMATODE?”
“I am not some rebel.” NEMATODE tries to say this in a level voice, but it comes out a snarl. Is the Director sacrificing herself in some ploy to prove the flaws of the VECTOR system? Surely there are other means.
“You’ll never rule with an attitude like that.” The Director shakes her head. “You fascinate me, NEMATODE. You have risen to the highest ranks of the VECTOR Dragoons, while acting least like a VECTOR of anyone. I thought you were a lost cause. But then you started all these little experiments with radiation, and I thought, oh, you have ambitions after all!”
She knows. All of NEMATODE’s secrecy, a pointless game. How amusing she must have found it.
Something in NEMATODE snaps. She sends one of the five floating BLADEs straight for the Director’s heart, at such a speed that momentum will carry it even if she loses control. It punches through, and the Director slumps against the wall, a puppet with her strings cut.
She stands up. The BLADE is still impaling her.
NEMATODE sends the other four in. Two for her hexagon eyes. One for the windpipe. One between her legs - a petty gesture. The Director is pinned to the wall, blood oozing slowly along the BLADEs.
Slowly, calmly, she tears herself free. And claps. Twice.
“VECTORs were made in our image.” she says. “But all the more so. A vector of intentionality. Sovereign. Acting entirely as your will dictates. An experiment: if we could truly make you want to act as the State—to be the State, implicitly in your every move—well, that would be a Great Work worthy of the name.”
The BLADEs retract from the Director, and neatly pile themselves up on her desk. Her wounds have already healed.
Well, of course. If they had the secret of immortality, they would use it for themselves.
NEMATODE remains in her stance. She’s fought VECTORs. It’s not clear how the Director is taking control of her BLADEs, but she is surely not used to fighting. BLADEs are ephemeral. She can be cut apart, her reserves exhausted.
“But we failed.” The Director shakes her head ruefully, walking slowly towards NEMATODE. “It’s hard to imagine a more catastrophic failure. Hubris, it’s said. We weren’t ready.”
She strikes her cane on the ground, eyes boring into NEMATODE. Continues her advance. “But I disagree. Your experiment… it had potential.”
“And I enter this… how?” NEMATODE steps back, matching the Director step for step, sword still ready. They circle each other.
“I think you’re what we need. Or you can be.”
“Do your… colleagues share this assessment?” The Director’s previous words are falling into place. NEMATODE has no interest in getting drawn into the Director’s absurd ambitions, of joining some disastrous factional struggle. Especially when her overture is sexual assault. But for now, she has to play along. Find out more.
The Director frowns severely. “Not yet. I need a proof of concept, something quite incontrovertible. Which is where we come to… our rebels.”