LUX #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/21/2019)

Hustling down to Engineering, Eve half-expected to find poor Eirene smeared over the walls. Instead she was sitting by the engine, reading something on her watch. “Oh, hi May,” she said. “You look, um… a little frazzled.”

“I am a little frazzled.” Eve straightened herself out. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, fine. I’m just running some diagnostics on the generator, a few things have been funky.” She patted the side of the van-sized machine. “Shouldn’t be anything to worry about. This girl’s top-of-the-line.”

Eve took a seat alongside Eirene. “What did Cressida want?” she asked cautiously. Cress had wanted to talk about something- could it be related?

“Oh, umm, a personal affair.” Eirene averted her eyes. “It wouldn’t be right of me to say any more, it was said in confidence.”

Eve bit her lip. If Cressida had something to hide, maybe Eve could use that for leverage. But how to get Eirene to talk about it? “If Cressida is the security officer… shouldn’t she protect you from Peitho?” Eve asked. 

A rueful smile formed on Eirene’s face. She must have swung by medical, because the injuries Peitho had inflicted were gone. “You’d think so, right? But Cress is an incredibly gentle and kind person. I think that’s why she and I became so close… well, I don’t think I’m like that, I think I’m just too weak to be tough and too cowardly to be mean. But I can get away with being so passive and feeble… I spend all my time working with machines.” 

She ran her hand along the engine with almost maternal affection. “Nice predictable machines. Harmless if you handle them properly. Every problem they can have can be understood, controlled, and fixed. People are so… messy. They’ll never do what you want, they change when you look away, and sometimes they’ll do things just because you weren’t expecting them to do it. That’s why I spend all my time down here.”

“If she was truly kind… wouldn’t she keep you safe?”

Eirene shook her head. “It’s not like that. Cress wants to help- and she does, in a million ways. But she doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Peitho… because Peitho’s a terrible enemy to have, and Cress just isn’t much of a match for her. I would never ask someone to sacrifice themselves for me.”

“What about me?” Eve asked.

“You?”

“Am I going to be destroyed?”

“Oh… hah… I don’t know. Part of me says you will be. Part of me says you’re an even bigger monster than Peitho. Most of me… is just happy that someone was willing to try.” Eirene’s smile was one of someone who had walked through hell… no. Of someone who was walking through hell. 

It was inhumane, to manipulate someone the way Eve was trying to manipulate Eirene. Taking advantage of someone so vulnerable… Eve saw how someone like Peitho could do it, and how revolting it was. Was it really right for Eve to cling to life like a barnacle, even if it meant lowering herself to that scum’s level? “It was… reflex,” she said finally. “I didn’t think. I just moved.”

“Well, I’m pleased you did. How did you get so brave, May? Is there a secret to it or something?”

“No secret,” Eve said, shaking her still-damp head. “I just want to help. But… like you said. It might not go the way we want it to. The only way for you to be safe is for us to do something about Peitho, right?”

“Something? You don’t mean…?”

Eve kept her face stony. “As a last resort. Let’s try to think of something better first. That means we’ll need whatever kind of allies we can muster. Cressida is the security officer, and your best friend besides. Can’t we get her to help?”

“Well, I can try to talk to her. I don’t think it’d do much, though.” Eirene opened a shunt and pulled a tray out. It was made of a clear glass with several indents in it, each of which had a different liquid inside. “Lessee… helium-4 normal, helium-3 a smidge low… oh, interesting, an excess of caesium… so that means…”

Eve’s scientific knowledge didn’t cover the negative mass engines that TORCH used so extensively in their bases and starships, although she did understand the basic underpinings of the strange machines. It was also far and away the last thing on her mind right now. “We should think of something better,” she urged. “If Cress won’t be responsive to being asked. Maybe we could…”

Eirene looked up and frowned. “We could what, May?”

No, too strong. She had to dial back. “Well, you know her much better than I do,” she said instead. “How do you get Cress to do things?”

“You don’t. Poor thing… she doesn’t really commit herself to any course of action. She can never decide which fork of the road to take, so she just ends up going nowhere. Then she wonders why she’s not happy.” Eirene sighed. “And the person on the base whose job is to help her is the personnel officer-”

“-Peitho.”

Eirene nodded gravely.

If Cressida was truly so indecisive, she’d probably keep her discovery about Eve to herself. But on the other hand, Nysa and maybe Peitho were prowling the base, looking for weapons to use against Eve. It seemed only a matter of time before one of them got wind that Cress knew something and squeezed the truth out of her.

“…This isn’t right,” she muttered. “Any of it. This isn’t what I wanted.”

“It’s not what any of us wanted,” said Eirene. She was closely studying the results from her diagnostics. “But it’s what we got. Why do you think half the girls down here are so conked out all the time? We’re all trapped in this place together. You can’t escape without dying, so the girls die- by inches.”

Eve glanced around the dark, humid engine room. “So this is my tomb, huh?”

“I think you died a long time before you got here, May. If you don’t mind me saying.”

“…You’re a sharp one, Eirene,” said Eve, smiling grimly. “You could be pretty dangerous yourself.”

Eirene giggled. “Well, fortunately for all of you I have cripplingly low self-esteem.”

<== ==> (Coming 8/21/2019)

LUX #21

<== ==>

There was no time to dry or get dressed. With the clarity of mind that only comes from a crisis, Eve wrapped herself in a towel and charged out of the bathroom, leaving steam in her wake.

She dashed for the lounge, where Coronis said she would be. It was on the far end of Deck 2, so Eve had to run across the entire deck in nothing but a towel- fortunately the deck was almost abandoned. The only people here were either asleep or so high that they may as well have been comatose.

Eve burst into the lounge. It was a dark and smoky room, the walls and ceiling painted black and a richly perfumed scent in the air. Everyone here was drinking or snorting, and a few had paired off to make out or otherwise.

Coronis was in the center of the room alongside Libera. They were… playing checkers? “Corey, we have a problem,” Eve said desperately.

“Don’t distract her,” Libera called, her speech slurred. “She has two thousand digits riding on this game-”

“I win,” said Coronis.

What?

She pointed at the checkerboard. “I took your last piece. I win.”

“Oh.” Libera picked up the piece, which was in fact a shotglass, and downed the contents. “Ha! You win! Best of seven?”

“Sure, lemme help May first.” With a winsome smile, Coronis stood up and guided Eve to the corner of the room. “What’s the problem?”

Eve made sure nobody was listening in. “Are you sober?”

“Yeah! Don’t worry, I never use my own product. The vodka in my pieces is just water.” Coronis winked. “Did something happen?”

Eve gave Coronis an abbreviated version of events. Again, Coronis just stared like Eve had said nothing interesting. “You know she recognized you?” the smuggler asked skeptically.

“She’s seen the footage, she must know. Most people don’t have a pair of extra arms sticking from their ribs.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s true.” Coronis rubbed her chin for a few moments. “Hmm… well. What do you want to do?”

“I need to get out of Lethe-2, now,” Eve said urgently. “I can take my same spacecraft if need be-”

“No can do. Nysa’s put it in storage. We have evacuation ships but they’re biometrically locked to Nysa and Libera.” An illusion of Nysa dropping a spaceship into a box materialized next to Coronis’ head. “Or I could get a ship to come and pick you up, but it’d take a while… weeks. Months maybe.”

Eve’s stomach felt like an iron ball. She was trapped down here. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t leave. “B-but Cressida knows who I am… I can’t stay.”

“Cress’ no snitch. I think you’re worrying too much again if you don’t mind me saying. We’ll take care of it.”

How?!” It was all Eve could do not to scream at Coronis, who took a step back when faced with her intensity.

“I-I’ll think of something! I-” Coronis looked over at Libera, who had started to loudly sing to herself. “Okay look, I gotta keep an eye on the boss lady. I’ll have a plan by dinner tonight- and I guarantee you Cress won’t snitch on you before that. Just… go put some clothes on and don’t worry about it.” She looked Eve in the eyes. “I mean it. I’m gonna make this go away.”

Eve was on the verge of losing her temper. Not now, not now! She had to leave, get far away from here and try to calm down. Turning on her heel, she returned to the bathroom to shower and dry herself off. Breathe. One and two and three and four. Five and six and seven and eight.

It took almost an hour of deep breathing before Eve felt her temper had finally receded. As she pulled her purple robe on, she realized something. If Cressida was in the shower room and Coronis with Libera… that meant Eirene was alone and unprotected.

<== ==>

LUX #20

<== ==>

 

Most of the owls showered before breakfast or bed, or not at all from the stink of a few of them. Eve did not dare undress in front of others, so she waited until the shower room was completely empty.

The hottest water temperature was a few degrees below boiling. It would have scalded anyone else, but Eve found it pleasantly moderate. Her long, wild violet hair grew heavy with water.

She hated being naked. With her clothes off she could ignore her deformities- that became impossible when she took them off. The skinny little half-tentacles that hung from her midsection, the craters and lumps on her chest and belly, the enormous black rift along her sternum that she prayed would never open. 

Eve was always a little radioactive. But when she lost control of her abilities she emitted 100 times more radiation than a chunk of enriched plutonium.  While Born from Atom couldn’t directly harm her, it still acted as a mutagen. Naturally the mutations were nothing useful, like a new magic power or a functional limb. Just bumps and indents and masses of pointless flesh and that damnable rift.

More pressingly, her mutations were well-known. Anyone who had seen the footage of her meltdown knew about them: her clothes had disintegrated seconds into the rampage, something she only learned when she watched the footage herself.

The incident was bizarre to think about, because Eve didn’t exactly remember it. It was more like a dream, a dim reflection through a dirty mirror. She remembered what happened directly before- trying to drink her tea while Necessity yelled at her and called her a monster- and she remembered waking up in a holding cell afterwards.

But it was her. She did it. The footage was undeniable and there were hundreds of survivors to confirm it. And the worst part of all was that Eve had laughed the entire time. Laughed like a madwoman as she reduced friends and colleagues to liquid.

Oh yeah. The other reason she hated showering. Her mind had always been prone to wandering, so long walks or showers had proved invaluable to her research in the past. Not anymore. Now every idle moment brought her back to the events of that awful day four years ago.

What had she missed? Why had she gone berserk? What was she supposed to do now? Just die? Just end her putrid life and make the universe a not-insignificantly kinder place for her absence?

Eve realized she had stood under the showerhead without moving for close to five minutes now. Shaking herself back to reality, she grabbed the shampoo and began to lather her hair.

“Do you need any help?” someone asked from behind her. A bolt traveled up Eve’s back. She recognized the voice. It was Cressida. “Err, I noticed you standing there without moving… is everything okay?” the security officer asked.

Eve peered over her shoulder. Cressida stood there, a shower caddy in her right hand. She was totally nude, her lean and lissome body bared, her chest knotted with muscle. “Fine,” Eve said quietly. “Don’t worry about me. What are you doing here?”

Cressida didn’t look convinced. “Umm, I didn’t have time to shower earlier. I could see you talking to yourself too. I don’t want to pry, but…”

“But what?”

“But it sounded like you were talking about killing yourself.”

Eve flushed, realizing that she had indeed been muttering to herself as was her habit. She hadn’t even realized. “T-that… isn’t your concern.”

“Well, it sort of is. I don’t… think it’d be good for anyone if you did that. Including me.” Cress looked up. “Shit, that sounded callous… I’m sorry, not what I meant. Just that, I know it’s really hard to be moved to a new base and all. I definitely had a hard time myself. But hurting yourself isn’t the answer.”

What did Cress mean by that? It wouldn’t be “good” for her if Eve killed herself? “I’m not going to,” Eve settled on. “I think about it sometimes, but I’d never actually do it. I’m too much of a coward. Besides, if I do go through with it, I’d be gracious enough to make it look like an accident. So you have nothing to fear, officer.”

Much to her horror, Cressida made her way over to Eve. “Hey, listen… I know we just met and all, but if you need someone to talk to, I can try and listen. I’m not very smart but I’m better than being alone, right?” She moved to clasp her hand against Eve’s shoulder, which would burn the flesh off of her hand. So Eve darted away.

And exposed the front of her body to Cress.

Cressida stared at her chest, and Eve was pretty sure Cress wasn’t checking out her rack. She was staring at the huge, unsightly deformities that decorated Eve’s torso. “Oh… uhm…” She flushed. “Sorry. Sorry! I gotta go!”

And before Eve could grab her and tear her head off- god damn it, why was that her default- Cressida had run out of the room.

<== ==>

LUX #19

<== ==>

 

“Shouldn’t you ask LUX command that question?” Eve said, self-loathing coursing through her the moment the words fell out of her mouth. Nysa going up a few rungs on the ladder was the last thing she wanted. “I don’t know why they sent me down here, Vice-Director. I’d be happy to tell you if I did.”

“Perhaps I will ask,” Nysa said, but she was lying. Clever as she was, she wasn’t much of a liar… her tone immediately became papery and slow, like she had to consider every word. “Are you neo_SMOKE, May?”

“No,” Eve answered honestly. “But perhaps I could provide some insight into why one might join neo_SMOKE.” This was her only move. Eve wasn’t much of a liar either, but if she could change the subject to something that she could speak candidly on, her position would improve.

“Oh?”

“You’re right that Schwarzschild was a failure. SMOKE was an embarrassment of a branch. Their purpose was to spirit TORCH agents and material across the cosmos with their portals, an essential function. The only issue was that the branch was barely functional due to chronic mismanagement and administrative bloat. Eventually the rest of TORCH grew weary of all the preventable death and decided upon a… severe solution.”

“I know all that,” Nysa said impatiently.

“Ah, but what I think many of our generation don’t know is that Schwarzschild was a beloved icon long before the purging of SMOKE and birth of neo_SMOKE. The portals failed for one reason: the girls opening them were bad at their jobs. They lacked discipline or fastidiousness. And why did they lack these things? Because Schwarzschild herself did, and they took her example to heart. Branches have a tendency to be embodied by their head… and I don’t think that was truer anywhere than in SMOKE.”

What Eve was saying wasn’t exactly typical. The consensus in TORCH was that SMOKE was a den of vice and depravity that only festered due to Schwarzschild’s lax leadership. Few would argue that Schwarzschild intentionally created such a culture. “Schwarzschild felt no obligation to the rest of TORCH, or to anyone but herself. The shape SMOKE took was an expression of her disdain for the rest of us. ‘Look what I can do,’ she told us. ‘Look at the power I wield. All of you are just my toys, to live or die as I see fit.'”

As Eve spoke, Nysa’s skepticism slowly gave way to rapt attention. “But this had a side effect that I don’t believe was intentional,” Eve continued. “To the millions who felt repressed or dwarfed by the expectations placed on TORCH agents, Schwarzschild’s selfishness scanned as freedom. This is, of course, a dangerous idea.”

“Freedom gets in the way of the oaths,” Nysa murmured.

“Quite. TORCH only exists because of the consent of its agents to do things like live at the bottom of the ocean and study monsters. Just by existing, Schwarzschild gave girls a dream of an alternative. That was why she had to be destroyed- and of course, killing her turned her into a martyr. Thus, neo_SMOKE.”

“What was she thinking?” Nysa asked. “The damage done by Schwarzschild was immeasurable- did she just hate TORCH so much?”

Eve shook her head. “I can’t say with certainty, but I don’t think so. I think she did what she wanted, with no regards for how this would harm others. Me personally, I don’t believe Schwarzschild preached freedom. She preached selfishness. She didn’t believe in or reciprocity or a public good, she just wanted to be immersed in hedonistic pleasure. She doesn’t deserve her icon status… I don’t think she even meant to cultivate it, she just noticed people would compliment and favor her when she acted in a certain way.”

Nysa sat back in her chair. “I see. That’s an interesting take, May… and a critical one. You really don’t give her any credit.”

“She doesn’t deserve any credit,” Eve replied. “She was a selfish child who hurt everyone around her. I would never join neo_SMOKE and throw my lot in with someone like that.”

Nysa nodded, convinced. “So how does a cryptobiologist become so knowledgeable on someone like Schwarzschild? You never met her, did you?”

“No, I never met her,” Eve lied. “But I like to read about politics and Matres… something Corey and I bonded over.”

“Well, it’s good to have someone knowledgeable about history on hand,” said Nysa. “Maybe I’ll pick your brain a bit more later.” She stood up and straightened her clothes out. “I believe that you’re not neo_SMOKE, May. But I don’t believe you were sent here by happenstance. I do intend to find out, so let me know if you remember anything helpful.”

“Will do, Vice-Director.” 

Nysa left. Eve’s remaining waffle was now too cold to eat.

<== ==>

 

LUX #18

<== ==> (Coming 7/24/2019) 

Eve’s heart had only just settled from the encounter with Cressida. She glanced down at her tea, covering her mouth with her cup to hide her snarl. “Of course,” she said, all of her willpower going into keeping her voice neutral. “The Mater’s work on the links between Titans and teleoarcanism are essential.”

“Certainly. I never got the chance to work with the Mater Veneficis, but I was at her periphery.” Nysa inspected her nails with exaggerated indifference. “She worked closely with Hyperion, who worked closely with Libera, who worked closely with me. I’m not much of a scientist, but even I could see the beauty of her writings on the Titans. Her enthusiasm and love of her craft… it shone through in every word of every paper.”

Eve peeked up and nodded. “Yes…  her writings were the underpining for much of my research. I also never met her, though.” That much Eve could say with confidence. She had never met Maia Oread- although she had read some of her papers years earlier. The late Docent Oread was an adequate researcher with a solid writing style, but her methodology was faulty and her thinking shallow. Nothing special- Eve had in fact forgotten all about them until last night.

“That’s a shame. Eve fascinates me, you know.” Nysa folded her hands on the table as she leaned in. “In the same way, oh, Stalin fascinates me. How someone so brilliant could be so vile. How she could write with such sensitivity and wisdom, and commit such a horrific atrocity.”

Eve shut her eyes. The pounding of her heart was like the clanging of a hammer against an anvil. She sweat like a hog, and the smell of ozone filled her nostrils. “Yes,” she squeaked out. “I agree.”

Nysa’s eyes glimmered with triumph. “You seem to have strong opinions on the Mater, May- would that be right?”

Eve just nodded.

“I wonder. Are there any other Matres you have a high opinion of? Say… Schwarzschild? The Mater Peregrina?”

The late founder of SMOKE, who committed suicide rather than face tribunal for high treason. Now there was someone Eve didn’t think about very often… probably because she hated Schwarzschild’s guts.

Even before her meltdown, Eve had difficulty keeping her temper much of the time- a problem exacerbated a hundred times over by Schwarzschild. Like Eve, she had been gifted with incredible magical abilities. was called Field Equation, the magnificent power over portals let Schwarzschild only move whole starships across the cosmos. Not only that, she could also gift a weaker form of her powers to others. The latter ability let Schwarzschild create an entire branch centered around her and her ability.

But unlike Eve, oh-so-careful every minute of every day of every year to keep Born from Atom in check, Schwarzschild used Field Equation without a care. That was a deadly quality for a portal operator. Countless girls died because their portal opened hundreds of feet above or below ground, or the depths of space, the middle of the sea, the inside of a star…

But what made Eve truly loathe the woman was that Schwarzschild never admitted fault or apologized. Eve lost her temper once and it led to several dozen deaths- something she’d never be able to forgive herself for. Schwarzschild let millions die over the decades because of her laxness, and never spared them a whit of grief.

Strangely, thinking of Schwarzschild went a long way to calming her down. Perhaps because it let her focus her hatred on one target instead of everyone and everything. “Sorry?” she asked Nysa.

“Many in LUX are big fans of Schwarzschild… some would even consider their loyalties to lie with her. There was a newsphere poll recently about the approval rate of neo_SMOKE across branches… over eighty percent of LUX girls said they approved.” Nysa shook her head, her golden hairbun bobbing. “I don’t understand it myself. Why would anyone choose to worship someone who failed on every level? And yet, countless do… some even down here.”

It clicked into place. Nysa had licked the truth… but mistaken the flavor. “You think I’m neo_SMOKE,” Eve said softly.

Nysa gave her a hard smile. “I never said that.”

“You think that I, disillusioned by Eve’s fall, rejected LUX and instead became a member of neo_SMOKE. Now I’m just a LUX agent on paper.” They both knew this, but talking it out was Eve’s most effective methods of calming down. “And I came down here to…?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. Nobody gets transferred down here- ever. So what makes you so special? Your file is devoid of anything but cliches. There are a million women just like you- and yet they sent you down here. Why?”

<== ==> (Coming 7/24/2019) 

LUX #17

<== ==>

Eve’s heart began to pound at the prospect of recognition. “Were you ever stationed at Pergamon?” she asked, trying to keep her voice even.

“LUX Command? No… never. Before here, I was only ever stationed in Chantico.”

Her heartbeat only intensified. Maia Oread had never been to Chantico… but Eve Volcanis had spent much of her life there as a well-known public figure. Eve had grown out her hair and hired a neo_SMOKE surgeon to alter her facial features, but things like her body type were harder to disguise. Anyone who had met Eve before would probably recognize her, unless they were particularly oblivious. “Well… maybe we ran into one another somewhere else. What did you do in Chantico?”

“I was BEACON in those days. Worked at a checkpoint.” BEACON was TORCH’s military arm, they partially handled security services in the capital. “Did you ever go there for vacation or something…?”

Coronis interjected before Eve could respond. “May, didn’t you present your research at a symposium in Chantico?”

“Oh! Oh yes.” That was a good cover. LUX ran multiple symposiums a year in Chantico, and it would be the main reason for an owl of May’s station to travel there. “Yes, I suppose that must have been when we met.”

“Huh, okay.” Cress didn’t sound convinced. “Well, it’s nice to remeet you. Uh, I wanted to talk to Eyes about something, but if she’s busy…”

“No, no, I’m finished.” Eirene stood up. “Um, I’ll see you later May. Cress and I will be in the engine room.”

The two of them left the mess hall, leaving Eve alone with Coronis who finished up her sandwich. “You and Eirene really hit it off, huh,” the smuggler said, a burning woman and an angel dancing beneath her chin. “You know who she reminds me of sometimes? Juno, the Mater Sapientia.”

Juno flashed through Eve’s mind. The gentle, doe-eyed, astonishingly brilliant woman who was Eve’s very favorite conversationalist. Soft and kind, but strong as steel in her convictions and unrelenting in her pursuit of truth. Emerald of hair and eyes, quick to joy and tears, and the best scholar Eve had ever known.

Eve had reduced her to a charred pile of meat.

 “You never met Juno,” she said through her teeth.

“But you do see the resemblance, right? I was a biiiig fan, almost as much as I was of you. You gotta understand, I spent so much time reading about Matres, I feel like I’ve known you for years now.”

“So I’m just as the texts describe me?”.

Corey shook her head, her curls bouncing. “Nah. You’re way cooler in person. Anyways, how did you and Eirene become such good friends?”

Eve hesitated to tell the story to Coronis, but decided to be truthful. Peitho was going to be a problem moving forward. “…so now I have to protect Eirene. It seems to me like Cressida is the one who ought to handle that, but whatever.”

“Cress? She’s… well, don’t expect too much from her.” Coronis sipped her coffee. The story had no visible effect on her. “Poor thing can barely choose what socks to wear in the morning, let alone to stand up to someone like Peitho.”

“She knew me,” Eve hissed. “Maybe we met in Chantico… I don’t remember her. But if we did meet, it’s only a matter of time before-”

“May, May, may I ask you to stop worrying so much?” Coronis moved to put a hand on her shoulder, but realized what a bad idea that was midmotion. “We can handle Peitho. We can definitely handle silly old Cress. I invited you down here because I thought the calm and quiet would help relax you… but how are you going to do that if you keep inventing problems for yourself?”

Eve scowled. Did Coronis not see how this was her fault? She brought Eve down to this godforsaken base where tinpot tyrants like Peitho thrived. She failed to vet everyone properly, putting Eve close to at least two people who could recognize her. She didn’t account for the suspicions of Nysa. All because of how excited Coronis was at the prospect of her very own Mater friend. “So what are we going to do? Just… nothing?”

A visage of what looked to be Eve and Coronis dressed as burglars appeared by Coronis’ head. “I didn’t say that. I’ll talk to Peitho- she and I have an understanding. Cress though, she’s truly no threat to you or anyone.” Coronis stood up. “Okay, I gotta lot to do today but we should get dinner together!”

She wandered off, leaving Eve to finish her meal alone.

Eve expected most of the crew to bother her with introductions, but they were giving her a wide berth. Not that she was complaining, she hated to awkwardly seek common ground with a stranger. She’d prefer curling up with a long, boring research paper in her room any time.

But it remained unsettling. None of them had any interest in the first newcomer to the base ever? 

Eve hadn’t quite polished off her plate when Nysa approached. “Good morning, docent,” she said, hands folded behind her back. As yesterday, Nysa stood out with her meticulous and professional dress sense. Today it was a butter-yellow pantsuit with a jacket that went down to her knees. “This seat free?”

“Not unless there are invisible girls down here.”

Nysa smiled with half her mouth. “I knew an owl like that. Naturally there was a twist to it: she couldn’t turn her bones invisible. If she lost her focus she turned into a shambling, levitating skeleton. It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Eve mustered her most polite smile. There was no way Nysa was here for small talk. She was here to squeeze Eve for more information.

Nysa sat across from her and stared a hole into Eve. “I was reviewing your file again, docent, and I wanted to ask you more about your Pergamon deployment. I was there for several years, but I don’t believe we ever met.”

“It’s a ringworld,” Eve replied cautiously. “A floating city. Close to a million agents live there, not all of them LUX.”

“Very true. Plus, you were a researcher while I was on the administrative side of things. I read the papers you published on Pergamon and found them illuminating- especially your theories on the Titans.” Nysa chuckled ruefully. “You know who studied the Titans extensively? The Mater Veneficis. Eve Volcanis.”

<== ==>

LUX #16

<== ==>

Besides Phoebe, the only person who actually seemed to do any work in Lethe-2 was the cook. Breakfast was just as hearty and delicious as dinner: corned beef and cabbage sandwiches, pot roast with ginger, fried chicken and waffles, bean soup, yogurt with chunks of almonds and dark chocolate, and literal barrels of rich hot coffee.

Eve sat with Eirene and Coronis, trying to enjoy her hot tea and waffles in peace. She stayed away from coffee… she didn’t need to feel any more restless and jittery than usual.

Coronis seemed to have totally forgotten their awkward encounter the night before and was happily chatting away about, of all things, other Matres. “I read a really interesting article about Blood and Treasure,” she said. “You know them, Eirene?”

“I don’t. Is that their name?” Eirene’s voice was nasally and she inadvertently whistled on “s” sounds. She was so close to Eve that her face was flushed from the ambient heat. “What about you, May?”

“Nightshade, the Mater Sanguinis, and Majuro the Mater Auri,” Eve replied, sipping her tea. “Nightshade led intelligence and Majuro organized the internal economy during the Cenotaph War. They went on to found UMBRA and SPRING, respectively.”

Coronis’ smile flickered. “Y… yeah, them! Nightshade handled killing and Majuro money, so Astra called them Blood and Treasure. Oh, they were both so amazing, Eirene. They’re both gone now, though.”

“They are?” Eirene asked with a frown. “I didn’t think Matres died very often.”

“They don’t, those two are some of the few… and technically, Nightshade’s only missing.” Coronis stroked her chin as a shadowy figure appeared next to her head, slitting the throat of a golden woman.. “She was the architect of the Snuffing of SMOKE, you know. But she disappeared right after. My pet theory is she committed suicide, which would really suck..”

“…Wait, you’re a fan of hers? Even after she killed all your… umm, all those SMOKE sisters?” Eirene glanced at Eve.

Coronis giggled. “I’m not one of those neo_SMOKE sisters who’s all militant and angry. The Snuffing was terrible- but why hold a grudge? UMBRA’s never gotten in the way of my business… speaking of, Eirene, have you swung by medical yet for those bumps and bruises?”

Eirene touched her swollen lip. “Not yet… maybe you could help me? You don’t ask as many questions as they do.”

“Sure sure,” said Coronis cheerfully. “Friend price for my favorite wrench wench.” She emitted an illusion of bandages wrapping around a broken wrench.

“You really don’t have any shame, do you?” Eve said before she could stop herself.

Coronis’ smile faded. “W-well, it’s not like that. All I ever do is give people what they want. What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s okay, May.” Eirene idly scratched at one of her bruises. “Corey helps me. She helps everyone… and it’s all voluntary.”

Coronis nodded. “Y-yeah! I don’t force anyone to do anything, I just make things available to them and charge for my trouble. If OPTICA or some other law force cared, they’d have a cop stationed here… but I don’t see any law.” A police officer wagging her finger appeared next to her cheek for a moment, then vanished. “And trust me, there are people who do much worse than I do down here.”

Eve narrowed her eyes. Maybe Coronis was right… maybe she did provide a valuable service. Living in an intoxicated stupor seemed more appealing with every moment she spent in this miserable place.

Midway through breakfast, a large, powerfully-built woman approached the three of them. Her build was rangy and athletic, clear strength behind her movements, but her grey eyes were massive and soft. They were partially hidden behind her iron-filing hair. “H-hey Eyes,” she said nervously. “Corey. Uh, new girl.”

“Oh, introductions!” chirped Coronis. “Cress, this is May, our new cryptobiologist. May, this is Cressida- we call her Cress. She’s all muscle on the outside, but don’t be scared, she’s soft and gooey on the inside. You two probably have a lot to talk about.”

Cressida wore an Arcane Suppressor behind her bangs, the dark grey metal block outwardly identical to Eve’s own. “We’re all witches down here,” she said sheepishly. “Guess you and I are a little more witchy than most, eh?”

Cressida’s speech was oddly clipped, she swallowed the last sound of most words. Eve wondered if it was a side effect of the AS interfering with her brainwaves or if she was consciously holding back. It’d be rude to inquire into her magic power, and Eve wanted to make a good first impression. “So what do you do, Cress?” she asked instead.

“Security… on paper. I don’t really do much securing, to be honest.” Cressida stared at Eve with fascination, then said the four words Eve dreaded most. “Have we met before?”

<== ==>

LUX #15

<== ==> 

Eve made her way over to Eirene who was huddled in a ball on the floor. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“…Is she gone?” Eirene murmured from behind her knees.

“She’s gone. You… didn’t see any of that?”

Eirene didn’t answer. “Thank you,” she said at last, looking up. “I- thank you.” Her eyes were red and bleary, her nose stuffed, her mouth smeared with blood.

“Come on, get up.” Eve tried to keep her voice gentle. “I’d help you, but… my powers won’t let me touch you.”

Ponderously, Eirene got to her feet and wiped her face. “W-what are you doing here?” she murmured, even quieter than usual.

“Just going for a walk. What was that all about?”

“Oh… um, nothing.” Eirene became very interested in the floor.

Eve was unconvinced. “She was beating the shit out of you over nothing?”

“Believe it or not, yes. I mean, it’s kinda hard to tell… maybe I did do something and Peitho just didn’t want to say. Or maybe something else had her mad.” Eirene shook her head in disbelief, as though she had just realized the absurdity of what she was saying. “I never know what she’s thinking.”

Eve decided to change tactics. “Stronger than she looks, though,” she mused. “Is that some sort of arcane power?’

“Y-yeah. It’s called The Only Thing To Fear.”

“…’Is Fear Itself’?”

Eirene smiled through a busted lip and bloody teeth. “She gets the stronger the more afraid you are. You’d have to ask Peitho about the specifics of how it works… not that she’d say.”

Curious. It was a somatikos power like Born from Atom since it only affected Peitho’s body… but it drew strength from the emotions of others, giving it an empathic quality. That was the fascinating part about magic powers, they so often escaped easy classification. Eve would love to spend days and days studying every aspect of Peitho’s ability to see what she could learn from it…

But now was not the time. “Wait, she was hitting you so you’d be scared of her?” Eve scoffed. That was sickeningly straightforward. “And knowing this, you’re still afraid?”

“I-I can’t help that. Fear’s not, like… logical. I know that Peitho wants me to be scared of her, that doesn’t do much to make me less scared.” Eirene hugged herself. “I’m n-not strong like you, May. Probably I’ll get the rest of the beating plus interest in the next few days.”

“I made things worse for you, eh?” The black pit in Eve’s stomach grew in size and heft. Of course Peitho would try again the moment she thought she could get away with it. Eve hadn’t protected Eirene, she had just made herself a target. “Well, in that case, the only option is for us to stick together.”

Eirene looked up. “B-but…”

“I’ll be your bodyguard. I may not look it, but I’m good in a fight. I’ve dealt with bullies like Peitho before, and they always seek weak targets. If she thinks you’re well-protected, she’ll leave you alone.” Eve’s anger left her for just a moment- the instant she noticed its absence, it returned.

Eirene didn’t look convinced, her muddy brown eyes glossy with tears. “For a time. But you can’t protect me forever.”

“Plenty of time to think about forever. Let’s just worry about tomorrow.” Eve turned to leave. “You work down here, right? I’ll probably set up shop one level above in the research lab. Where does Peitho hang out?”

“Work Areas, Deck 4. She’s, um, our personnel officer.” Eirene calmed down the more they talked, and although they couldn’t touch she stuck close enough to Eve that sweat was forming on her brow. “Probably the most powerful person on the base after Vice Director Nysa.”

As Eve suspected. “Libera’s just a puppet, eh?”

“It’s more like she doesn’t really care about what happens. I don’t think she even knows my name… to Libera, you’re either someone who can give her pleasure or you don’t exist. Or you’re Nysa.”

Wonderful. Not one day aboard Lethe-2 and Eve had already managed to tick off the two most significant people aboard. Classic. Even when her one and only goal was to not make waves, she still managed to leave a trail of enemies in her wake. She was like a cancer cell, infecting communities, undermining and weakening and ultimately destroying them.

While she’d usually despise herself for this, Eve was starting to think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Lethe-2 was destroyed.

<== ==> 

LUX #14

<== ==>

Peitho turned her attentions back to Eirene. “You tell her to come down here?”

“No! N-no, no Peitho, I promise-” Eirene’s pleas were cut short with a hard slap to the face. She wept softly in Peitho’s grip. Rancor rushed through every inch of Eve’s body.

The white-haired woman returned her attentions to Eve. “You see? She belongs to me- and there’s nothing you can do about that. Turn around, leave this place, and never speak of what you saw to anyone. It’s the best for all three of us.”

Eve took another step forward. “Let her go.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “This is your final warning.”

With a disbelieving sneer, Peitho dropped Eirene and stormed over to meet Eve. “Big mistake, newbie,” she breathed. “I think I’ll teach you some respect.”

Eve just stared. Her bluff had been called… she couldn’t actually fight back. Throwing a punch would probably set off a chain reaction that would lead to Eve completely losing control and destroying herself, and Lethe-2 while she was at it. Even in the best case scenario where she regained herself, she would still end up killing Peitho and Eirene.

“I know all about your power,” Peitho continued. “Pyrostatic… static electricity, right? Oh yeah- I know loads of things. But it won’t do much with that little headband on, now will it?”

“You sure do love the sound of your voice, don’t you?” Eve asked, having no plan. “Make a move or leave.”

Her only hope was that her voice sounded scary enough for Peitho to leave without fighting. Much to her horror, Peitho made a move: she dropped into a fighting stance. Her posture was loose and casual, with the air of a professional boxer or a seasoned street brawler. She knew how to fight, and quite well at that.

Peitho skipped forward and threw a punch, all her body weight behind the explosive strike. Eve barely saw her move and couldn’t have dodged it in a million years.

The attack found its mark, the soft cartilage and brittle bones of Eve’s nose. Peitho was a lot stronger than her size would indicate: some sort of magical power, perhaps? Super strength, or maybe she was just freakishly athletic.

It was a devastating strike. Most people would be knocked out cold and would wake up with a shattered nose.

To Eve, it felt a bit like a butterfly had landed on her face. Peitho was the one who screamed.

“F-fuck!” she stared down incredulously at her hand. The flesh over her knuckles and metacarpals was seared an ugly dark red, and her three middle fingers were limp. They had shattered into a thousand pieces on impact. Peitho put her hand away and stared up at Eve, terror in her eyes. “W… what are you?”

Oh, how easy it would be to just pluck her head from her shoulders. To rip her heart out in one fluid strike. To singe the flesh from her bones until all that remained was a charred pile of bone scraps, to boil her and roast her until she was begging to be put out of her misery, to make this vile bitch suffer indescribable anguish for daring to even stand in Eve’s way. She went to grab Peitho and make her feel true pain-

And breathed. One and two and three. Four and five and six. Seven and eight and nine. It was all Eve could do to restrain herself from attacking. Instead she stared a hole in Peitho and controlled her breathing. “Get out,” she whispered.

Peitho ran past Eve and out the door. Eve watched her go, then took a minute to settle her temper. She counted to sixty. All the flames, all of the Eve that wasn’t to ever see the light of day, caged once more. Trapped in an unbreakable box beneath a thousand miles of concrete, never to escape. Peace. Discipline. Peace.

LUX #13

<== ==>

There really wasn’t much to Lethe-2. Eve hadn’t been here for a day and she was already starting to go a little mad at the prospect of seeing these exact same rooms every single day. No wonder this place had gone to the dogs.

Her last stop would be Deck 7, engineering. There was only one deck below that: the brig. Eve wouldn’t go down there… for some reason, she pictured it as a whispering abyss beckoning her forward so it could reach out and swallow her. These feelings of dread happened a lot with no explanation.

The engineering room was grimy and poorly ventilated… not that heat could possibly bother Eve. The machines again formed a lovely industrial harmony, all of them working together to sustain life (as it were) at the bottom of the ocean. She approached the engine and negative-mass generator, a great spherical machine that let out a sonorous hum as it milled massive amounts of energy to power the entire facility. Eve lay her hand on it and let the hum run through her, let herself drift… when a wet crunch sounded from the other room.

Something was broken. Her skin stood on end and she went to leave the way she came- but then her eyes drifted to the source of the commotion. It couldn’t possibly hurt to get a closer look, right?

Eve carefully inched forward, making sure not to put too much of her considerable weight into her steps, and stopped at the doorway. There was another clatter and a choked cry. There was someone in there.

She pressed her ear to the door “P-please,” she heard. A frail woman. “I-I didn’t mean it, please…”

Another crash and a squawk. “Don’t lie to me,” said another voice. Feminine, but that was where the similarities with the first voice ended. This one was strong and assertive, almost statesmanly. “You know how much I hate… liars!” A muffled cracking noise and a low moan of pain. “You said you’d keep an eye on her- instead I see you eating with your friends?”

‘Her’? Who was ‘her’? “Agh! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” the first voice choked. “I forgot, I swear, I won’t do it again, I’m sorry!”

She should go. This had nothing to do with her.

“What guarantee do I have?” the second voice asked. “How do I know this isn’t just you trying to trick me again?”

The first voice was gagged, choked, sobbing. “I-I didn’t… I didn’t try to trick you… urgh! Urgh! Urgh!”

“Stop that,” Eve said.

Wait, what?

With a heavy sigh, Eve realized she had opened the door and strode inside. The movement was completely automatic. Now she was involved, and nothing she could do would ever make her not-involved.

This room looked to be storage for repairs and replacement parts. There were two people inside, Eve recognized one of them. It was that small, soft woman from dinner, Eirene. The one who had looked like she’d break if handled roughly.

She had been handled roughly. Her lip was split and her clothes were in tatters, with a long tear in her shirt to reveal the pale flesh of her belly. Her left arm hung as though she couldn’t move it, her right arm was nursing her ribs, there were the beginnings of bruises on her neck, and her cheeks were shiny with tears of pain and terror.

The other woman, who was holding Eirene by her shirt collar, was beautiful. She had sculpted features, a small mouth like a ripe cherry, wide and dark eyes. She was gorgeous by any standards, buxom and feminine and in-shape. She had pale white hair that gave her a faintly ethereal quality.

Eirene’s blood stained her hands.

The white-haired beauty narrowed her eyes at the sight of Eve. “This is a private matter,” she scowled. “Go to bed.”

Eirene trembled like a leaf, her eyes overflowing with terror. Scared of Eve? No. Scared half to death of the white-haired woman.

“Let her go,” Eve said quietly.

The white-haired woman smiled grimly. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, have we? I’m Peitho. You must be the new transfer. I’ve read your file… Maia.”

“I don’t want to talk. I want you to stop hurting her and put her down- before I have to make you stop.” Eve took a step forward.

Wait, wait, what was she doing? Charging in like an action hero to protect the weak from a sadistic bully? That was about as far-removed from keeping a low profile as possible. She may as well announce her identity over the PA system.

But it wasn’t right to let this continue. But she was sticking her own neck out for little Eirene, who had never done a thing for her. But it wasn’t right. But she shouldn’t. But she had to.

<== ==>

LUX #12

<== ==>  

 

 

The last thing Eve did was open Libera’s own author portal. There were several in a few different fields, all relating to exotic matter. Libera moved seamlessly between disciplines like an eel slipping through a net, and her papers were nothing short of dazzling. Detailed, innovative and yet entirely sound methodology. Complex topics translated so coherently that even a layman could understand the thrust of Libera’s research- without the sacrifice of any fidelity to detail. All written with a sharpness and verve that effortlessly demonstrated the author’s intelligence and humor.

It was the best paper Eve had read in months. It was dated five and a half years ago.

Libera hadn’t published anything since. Not a single paper since she became director of Lethe-2. That made sense on some level, a base director had countless duties besides research… but the author of this paper had clearly gone the extra mile to do excellent work.

What had happened to her? Eve didn’t want to even think about it. None of the answers that drifted through her mind were pleasant… and she was fragile enough as is.

Eve put her watch aside when her eyes began to hurt, but she still wasn’t tired. The few girls who were still partying had gone off to the lounge next door. The vast majority of the base was asleep.

Gingerly climbing the ladder past her sleeping bunkmates, Eve decided to take a walk through the ship to better orient herself. It had been so cramped on that tiny transport. Stretching her legs would be good for her.

Deck 1 was home to officerial accommodations, so she stayed away for fear of running into Nysa. Instead she headed down to Deck 3, walking through the mess hall which was in the midst of being scrubbed by a SPRING_Cleaning probe. TORCH generally disdained robots, but custodial duties were a waste of even the lowest agent’s time and talents.

For a few minutes, she watched the cleaning probe methodically suck up bits of food with a vacuum appendage, then spray away wet spots with disinfectant. Eve was no better than a hobbyist in engineering, but the skill of the roboticist was evident. Every inch of its design served a vital purpose, no wasted space. Rare to see these days.

The quiet was good. This was how the world was meant to be: not a shifting vortex of chaos but a purposeful silence broken only by useful or interesting information. The whirring of machines was one of the few sounds that quelled Eve’s fury for a moment or two.

She headed below-decks to the “workstations”. This office room was nearly as large as the galley but looked to have been overrun by a mob of teenagers. Cubicle walls had been torn down. Desk forts had been constructed. Marker graffiti was everywhere.

Of course. Work had all but ceased in Lethe-2, so what purpose did this room serve? Two pairs of feet stuck from beneath one of the desk forts, one over the other. They were trembling and moaning. Eve decided to go.

The hydroponics growth chamber made her feel sick- too much water in the air- so she went down another deck to the meeting rooms and sick bay. Not much to see here, on down to the research lab on Deck 6. This was the closest thing to an ordered place in the entire facility, although disturbingly sparse.

Phoebe sat at a large desk in the center of the room, utterly engrossed in a half dozen screens that surrounded her. She glanced up at Eve, then looked back down. “Docent Oread,” she said tersely. “Do you need something?”

“Just taking a walk. Sorry to bother you-”

“It’s fine. Kindly remedy that by vacating the premises.” Phoebe was staring at her watch screen with a frown. Eve was used to rudeness, but that didn’t stop it from sticking in her craw and flaring her temper- but then, what didn’t flare her temper?

“I read your papers,” she blurted out. “On the Enyoni. They were quite good.”

“Thank you.” Phoebe kept staring at the screen.

“It must be difficult… being the only person in this base who takes her work seriously. I just wanted to say that I’m glad there’s at least one woman like that.” Eve tried to stay positive: if she had a smile on her face and a kind word on her lips, it was easier to maintain her composure.

Phoebe just nodded. Out of respect for her fellow scholar, Eve made no further attempt to break her concentration.

<== ==>  

 

LUX #11

<== ==>

Eve couldn’t sleep. Quite the opposite: energy coursed through her the moment her head touched the pillow. She couldn’t get the smell of burning out of her nose.

There was nothing exceptional about the crew quarters. The owls slept in four-high bunks with a ladder on the end and cubbies along the side. Eve had ended up in a top bunk as those were the only ones available.

It had been four or five hours since she and Coronis parted. Eve had only been awake for about ten hours, but she could usually sleep whenever felt like it. The headband caused lethargy if she wore it for long enough, and her eyes did indeed feel heavy. But no sleep.

Did she feel bad about how things had gone with Coronis? A little. The neo_SMOKE girl had only been trying to help… hadn’t she? neo_SMOKE agents were infamous for peddling their wares at any opportunity. Was she just trying to acquire another customer for her poison?

No, it couldn’t be. Coronis could have sent Eve to a hundred different places, but she chose down here. The only reasons she could have were personal. She wanted an opportunity to befriend the legendary Mother of Witches, to be close to TORCH’s most notorious villain.

It was too much. Eve wished she could just close her eyes and be done with this wretched day, but paradoxically she was too stressed to sleep.

She decided to spend some time reading academic papers, that relaxed her. She religiously followed developments in the world of teleoarcanism- or as the layman called it, witchcraft.

The field had never truly recovered from the loss of its two greatest minds (Eve didn’t think it was haughty of her to consider herself that,) and progress remained slow. The most significant finds, such as the link between magic and neurotransmission that made Arcane Suppressors possible, were decades old. All the big questions remained without satisfying answers. LUX scholars had yet to determine what caused only some agents to have magic, what determined the nature of one’s abilities, and what were the causes of the unpredictable side effects of the Suppressors.

Eve no longer had the resources to meaningfully contribute to the field. Teleoarcanism was resource-intensive to study, the only field that needed intensive analysis supercomputers as much as it did tomes of esoteric lore bound in human skin. Eve once possessed both, but now she had no money, no test subjects besides herself, and no laboratory. Her library, which was filled with unique and irreplaceable texts, had been sealed off and quarantined. The best Eve could do was read everything new that came out and hope to see something the others hadn’t.

Nothing of interest. The usual set of experiments with weak methodology and inconclusive findings. With a sigh, Eve instead turned to cryptobiology and xenobiology. Her first stop was the Enyoni, to see what LUX had learned of the fascinating and horrific natives. Now that she had assumed the identity of Maia Oread, she also gained Maia’s clearance- which allowed her to see previously restricted papers regarding the Enyoni.

There were papers, over a hundred, but they were almost all dogshit. Junk science, methodology so flawed that a first-year student could see the folly, or buzzword-laden rambles completely free of substance.

140 LUX owls, a base that must have cost tens of billions of digits to build and maintain, and what had it produced? Papers so crappy that Eve would have failed them with a “see me after class” in her teaching days.

The only decent ones she found were written by Phoebe… the green-haired mute from dinner. While the style was lacking, her writings were informative overviews of what the Lethe-2 team had learned of the Enyoni.

When the base was first established, there was debate over the intelligence level of the monstrous. Some reasoned that massive creatures like that must be at least moderately intelligent, but Phoebe skillfully debunked that theory by pointing to their instinct-driven behavior and seeming lack of communication with one another. The Enyoni, she suggested, existed only to eat and mate. They ate constantly and mated once or never.

The more Eve read, the more she got the sense that Lethe-2 was a misadventure from the get-go. The original base, Lethe-1, had been a submarine because the Enyoni were constantly in motion. For the most part they moved around the planet as a swarm, circumnavigating it every year or so. The Enyoni depleted the oceans by eating everything they could touch, then left those waters behind long enough for the lesser wildlife to replenish their numbers in time for the Enyoni’s return.

But this meant the window of time in which Lethe-2’s instruments could gather new data about the Enyoni was only about twenty out of every seven hundred days. The rest of the population was very traditional aquatic life, and there was only so much to be said about salinity (high), soil composition (nutrient rich) and ocean currents (highly regular due to the lack of land.)

What then of the Enyoni Eve had seen? Phoebe characterized them as scouts: juveniles who were sent a few weeks ahead of the main pack. Eve had been “fortunate” enough to catch a glimpse of one of the first Enyoni of the season. Hundreds more would be passing over Lethe-2 in the coming weeks… that sounded horrid.

<== ==>