LUX #30

<== ==> (Coming 10/16/2019)

 

Cress and Stan’s faces mirrored one another’s: bittersweet smiles at the remembrance of what must have been a happier time for them. “Stan didn’t care that I was a witch, or that I hadn’t accomplished anything in my entire life. Stan just… liked me, and wanted me around. We talked more and more, soon every day.”

“Then one day, a neo_SMOKE agent wanted for smuggling tried to escape OPTICA pursuers through my checkpoint. I went to stop her, and then I thought, ‘what if they shoot her like they did those other girls?’ And I froze up. And I… let her go.”

There was no joy on Cressida’s part as she told the story. She didn’t seem proud of herself. “It was dumb. I didn’t have any principles so I thought that if I did something daring I could force myself to have principles. All I was doing was ruining my life with a pointless act of rebellion.” 

“I was court-martialed, naturally. LUX intervened on my behalf, I guess for no other reason than I’m a witch, and offered to take me in rather than have me imprisoned. But they didn’t want me after that fuck-up, so they stuck me down here- and everything that I said about Chantico goes tenfold for this awful fucking place.” 

For the first time, anger snuck into Cressida’s voice as it grew thick and breathy. “I was trapped. I didn’t know what to do, and the more I thought about the more I realized I had a nice life in Chantico but I was so stuck in here-” she tapped her head- “that I couldn’t realize it.”

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘what makes me happy?’ And the only answer I could come up with was Stan. We kept talking even though I was down here… and I started to let slip more about my circumstances because, hey, what did I have to lose?” Cress lay her hand atop of his. “And then…”

“I told her I wanted to meet her,” said Stan with the air of a dying soldier. “I was persistent. I brought it up many times. I guess I did a good job.”

Eve blinked. In all her years, she had never heard of a TORCH agent with a boyfriend from outside the organization. The rules outlined in the charter were in place for a reason: TORCH was centuries ahead of the governments of Earth. Any fragment of their technology would be like giving a nuclear bomb to some medieval king. All bets were off when advanced technology fell into the hands of those not ready for it.

But Cress had ignored that. The most sacrosanct principle, ignored. 

“How much do you know?” Eve asked Stan. Sapiens, how many decades had it been since she talked to a human? Let alone one from this time period.

He scratched his head. “Enough.” He spoke quotid- the language TORCH agents spoke- okay, but it clearly wasn’t his first tongue. “Not a lot about the history, but the big things I know. You’re… famous?”

“She used to be the leader of LUX,” explained Cressida. “She’s one of the most powerful witches to ever live. If she wanted to, she could turn this whole base into soup.”

“O-oh.” He swallowed dryly. “Uh, pretty cool. Like literal soup or?”

Eve smiled in spite of herself. “So you spirited Stan from Earth to Lethe-2. That was Coronis’ doing?”

Cressida nodded. “It’s an open secret that Corey is a neo_SMOKE agent- she was happy to do it. I figured out that she’s the one who snuck you down here, too. She’s, um, a really good smuggler.”

No kidding. “And then what?”

“And then I just had Stan… live in my room. I brought him food from the kitchen. I used to sneak him out every now and again but we had a few close calls… ” Her cheeks pinkened.

Eve glanced at Stan. “And how do you feel about all this?”

“Pretty horrible,” he said promptly. “I mean… this place is like a prison. I don’t have any sort of life down here. If anyone sees me, Cress dies- which is fucked up, by the way.”

“I-it’s been hard,” Cressida added. Tears began to form in her cheeks. “We’ve been fighting a ton. I just… I just want to be happy, Eve. But it seems like everything I do just makes things worse.”

Now that was something she could relate to. With a grunt, Eve stood up. “Well, now all three of us have something to hide.” She looked at Stan. “If you like, I could come hang out here sometimes. Give you someone but Cressida to talk to.”

“Please,” Stan said, his voice filled with relief. “You have no idea how awful it is to talk about swimming when you can’t go swimming.”

Eve completely understood his meaning, and she completely understood why Cressida looked like she had just been punched in the stomach. “Do you want to go to dinner?” she asked.

“T-that’s okay. You brought us… I think it’s meant to be food.” Cressida glanced at the nuked remains of the meal Dryas had prepared. “I’m going to trust you, Eve. I don’t know if I should, but I will. P-please don’t make me regret it.” Her voice was soft, but there was a firmness to her words and posture. Part of Eve was annoyed, the rest of her was pleased that Cressida finally found her guts.

“Deal.”

<== ==> (Coming 10/16/2019)

LUX #29

<== ==>

 

“The first time I saw you was when I was still stationed in Chantico,” said Cressida. “I had heard your name before, but I did some security work during LUX symposiums and you made a speech at one. About, umm… I think it was the Titans.”

The three of them sat cross-legged on the floor. Cress had changed into casual clothes- Eve had averted her eyes. Stanislav did not. “The connections between them and teleoarcanism,” Eve said. “Titans are multirelative entities who create micro-tears in ninth-dimensional space, reverberations of which can be felt in the third and fourth dimensions that we inhabit. They don’t experience time and space as we do- it draws from my theory that teleoarcanism is the result of Titanic activity on higher dimensions.”

Cress nodded hesitantly. “Ummm… yes. Maybe?”

“I have no idea what you just said,” Stanislav said.

“Well, anyways, we never spoke, but I stood maybe a few feet away from you.” She sighed. “I didn’t… recognize you when we met. But then I saw you, umm, disrobed this morning.”

Eve sighed. “I figured. Are you afraid of me, Cressida?”

“Should I be?”

The answer to that question was yes. The answer Eve gave was, “I’m trying very hard.”

Cressida’s smile was thin and fragile. “Well, whatever you are, I don’t think you’re a serial killer. I think you’re just a person who lost her temper. Of course, you could always lose it again… but what could I do about it?”

“What did she do?” Stan asked. “What did you do, Eve?”

“I killed dozens of people.”

“Oh.”

Eve smiled grimly. “I think the better question would be, what are you doing here Stan? Cress, mind reminding me of Rule 2 in the TORCH charter?”

No interaction with humanity except to maintain the clandestine nature of TORCH activity. Interaction is… uhm, punishable by death.”

Stan winced, but he seemed to already know that. Curious. “So you’ve both committed capital offenses, it seems,” he said softly.

“S-seems so, haha…” Cressida shook her head. “Will you, um, tell anyone?”

“No,” said Eve. “I know you have your reasons, although I’m not sure what they are. I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine, all right?” It didn’t feel as shitty as she expected, lying to Cress. But that was the funny thing: when you perpetrated a massacre, more mundane sins stopped feeling like they mattered. 

Cress nodded in relief. There was no way she suspected that Coronis engineered the situation. Ideally she’d never find out. “You came in here to bring me food, right?”

“Yeah. I thought I’d talk to you about what you saw and try to… convince you not to tell on me.” Eve sighed. Maybe she should have actually done that. That would have been the right thing to do. “How did you end up with a non-agent boyfriend, exactly?’

Cressida and Stan made eye contact. They had a silent conversation, like only two people who knew each other exceedingly well could have. Then Cress spoke. “Okay. I’ll tell you.”

“You know that I originally enlisted in BEACON. I’m in good shape, but I’m not really much of a fighter. I thought maybe I could be a medic or a scout or something, but I wasn’t good enough for legion deployment. I instead ended up in BEACON_Security, and eventually I was assigned to Chantico.”

“A lot of girls dream of having a job in the capital, but I hated every second of it. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that just standing at a security checkpoint and performing ID checks every day wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. But, you know, work is work. It sands your edges off, makes you neutral and regular. You just don’t have the energy to yearn for something more, because work takes so much out of you.”

“I found myself wishing for excitement, and then I got it. The Snuffing of SMOKE. All the SMOKE agents in Chantico were being rounded up to stand trial, and the ones who fought back were… killed. It was chaos for a few days. Some SMOKE agents tried to flee the city through my checkpoint with false ID’s. I did my job, I arrested them. Later on I found out that three of the four were found guilty of treason and executed.”

Eve hadn’t been in Chantico during the Snuffing. She had been aboard Pergamon, which carried over 2,000 SMOKE scientists. Every single one peacefully surrendered. They were exonerated at trial and almost universally invited to join LUX.

Few other branches extended the same kindness to the SMOKE agents in their midst. In a few cases things devolved into full-on armed conflict or even massacres, like those poor girls at Trinity Station who were massacred by UMBRA. “So you blamed yourself for the deaths?” Eve asked.

“Yes,” said Cressida, as though to say absurd, isn’t it? “I was miserable after that. I couldn’t decide, should I have let them go? What were my morals? What did I stand for? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t stand for anything, I didn’t mean anything, I was just a drone that did a job and anything else about me was irrelevant.”

“That was when I met Stan. SMOKE had been replaced with neo_SMOKE and a massive black market sprung up pretty much overnight. One thing they issued was the Angora Bypass… a plug-in that let me interface my TORCH intranet with the Earth internet. I was just so bored, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I started chatting with humans. Just a little at first, but I got bolder and bolder. And then I met Stan.”

<== ==>

LUX #28

<== ==>

 

Eve tried to steady her hand as the headband clinked to the floor. Why was she so scared? Why was she such a fucking coward? All she did was run and hide, run and hide like some sort of rodent. The most brilliant scholar? Hah! That was just her trying to avoid people, because books never surprised her. The most powerful witch? What good is a gun that doesn’t shoot where you point? All she could ever do was blow up, incinerate everything no matter how much she loved it. That was what happened to poor, stupid Juno eh? Juno tried to stand close to Eve, tried to find the good in the devil, and she died horribly for it. She melted, her hands clawing at her face as her flesh turned to butter and her eyeballs boiled in their sockets.

Eve did that. Eve killed her. That’s what she did. She killed people who loved her, and she laughed about it.

A hysterical giggle escaped her throat. Who was she fooling? Why not turn Lethe-2 into her grave? She and everyone here was clinging to life like a barnacle, literally bottom feeders. Libera was a junkie and Coronis her dealer, Nysa an enabler and Peitho a psychopath, Cressida a coward and Eirene a mute victim. Nothing worth saving down here, least of all Eve.

It wouldn’t even be hard. All she had to do was let go. It’d be like sinking into a warm bed after a never-ending day of labor. She wouldn’t feel anything but relief and she’d die happy- and who would be hurt, really truly?

Yes. She’d do it. She was laughing now at the idea, at the thought of all these useless and pathetic girls who had perverted her vision for LUX into this tumor of a base screaming as their clothes burned and their skin flared up like flash paper…

Something sharp hit her in the face, knocking her from her bleak reverie. Eve blinked and realized it was herself. Her own hand had slapped her.

Grace. Grace would be hurt. Grace, who when Eve went supernova showed neither fear nor hesitation. While the rest of TORCH tried to get as far from her as they could, Grace ran straight towards her and slapped Eve in the face. She mutilated her hand doing so- but she saved Eve. 

Grace, the only true friend Eve had left. They would never speak again… but they were still friends. 

Eve touched her lip and realized she was smiling at the memory. Fucking Grace. What was she doing right now? Probably stressing about how to do the right thing and help people as usual. She never changed. 

Eve quickly scooped up the headband and put it back on before anything else set her off. Relief spread through her body and she sighed. That had been far too close.

Fortunately it had worked. The door slid open.

Cress’ room was sparsely decorated. A poster of Napster, the popular SPRING musician known for her beautiful voice and hypnotic dance moves, was over Cress’ meticulously-made double bed. The dresser was crowded with make-up and haircare products… soldier girl took better care of herself than it seemed from first glance. Besides that, it was pretty sparse other than a strange smell that Eve couldn’t exactly put her finger on.

“Cress?” Eve called in a pantomime. “You in here? I thought I’d bring you something to eat.” This was stupid. Who was she talking to? With a huff, she set the tray down on Cressida’s desk and looked around. There was no private bathroom, so the door on the far wall had to be the closet.

Eve opened it to find it full of pressed uniforms, polished shoes, and modest swimsuits. There were also more casual clothes: baggy pants, skirts, and loose blouses that’d be perfect for clubbing.

And, sure enough, there was a big space between the clothes. Eve tapped it and it rang hollow. “Huh.” Experimentally, she gave it a push and the entire wall gave way. “Oops!”

There was a small room behind- and there was someone in there. Eve stood back with her hands on her hips. “What are you doing in there?”

“…Hiding from you,” the answer came. The voice was deep but slightly nasally, and definitely male. Abundantly male, really.

“Well, come on out,” said Eve. What was going on? Why was Cress hiding a male agent in her room?

He stepped out to reveal he was extremely tall: close to two meters. His hair was short and dark and speckled with grey, and his skin was both pale and oily. “…Hi,” he said, staring at her blankly.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Eve asked. Something was very wrong here.

The male didn’t answer. He just turned his head to look at the door. Cress was standing there, wearing an athletic swimsuit that showed off her powerful arms and legs. “…It’s not my fault,” he said. “She barged in. I don’t know how-”

Cress ran over. For a second Eve thought she was going to attack, but instead she just placed herself between the two of them. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice deathly quiet.

“I came to bring you some food so we could talk…” Eve pointed at the tray. “But I heard a noise from your closet so I went to investigate. Who’s, uh, your friend?”

Cressida was deathly pallid, while the male sweat like a pregnant nun at confession. “Th-this is… ummm…” Cressida swallowed her words. “My… friend… St… Sterope?”

“Why are you asking me?” Eve asked incredulously. “Why does your friend live in your closet?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, I mostly live in this room. I just hide in the closet.” Cress shot him a glare, but he kept talking. “My name is Stanislav. It’s nice to meet you.”

Only when he spoke did Eve finally realize it. His hair. It had grey in it. No TORCH agent, no matter how old they got, had grey hair.

Stan was not a TORCH agent. Stan was… something else. “Where were you born, Stan?” Eve asked.

“Err… Vladivostok. Russia.” He swallowed dryly. “Planet Earth.”

<== ==>

LUX #27

<== ==>

 

They headed for the kitchens. “So I was thinking, how do you protect a secret?” Coronis asked. “How do you make sure someone doesn’t tattle? You can bribe them, but they’ll be loyal to the money and not you. You can threaten them, but people get unpredictable when they’re under a lot of pressure. You can kill them, but that’s… mean. But there is a better option… any idea what it is?”

Eve shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I have absolutely no imagination for criminal enterprise. What do you do?”

“Hee hee! Glad you asked. You find a secret of theirs and do an exchange. ‘I won’t tell if you won’t.’”

“How is that not a threat?”

“Because it’s based on equanimity and trust. Neither of you want someone to find out your secret, but you know your secret is safe so long as you keep theirs safe. Trust me, it works every time.” Coronis paused. “At least, that’s what they say on the neo_SMOKE forums. I’ve never actually tried it before.”

They entered the kitchen. This room was heavily automated: the chef Dryas controlled a litany of mechanical limbs that interfaced with a chip in her brain. This let her cook for 140 people a day without standing up. “Hey Dryas, I have a special request,” said Coronis brightly. “Some food to go?”

The chef- a thin and pretty thing with wide misty eyes- smiled at Coronis. “Sure. Anything for you, Corey.”

“Thanks babe. I appreciate it- will put a little extra in your next delivery.” While Dryas busied herself with one of the machines, Coronis turned her attention to Eve. “So, here’s what I’m thinking. It so happens that our buddy Cressida has her own private quarters. You take this tray of food up to her room.”

“And?” Eve asked with a frown. “Poke around and hope to find something incriminating? How do you even know she has something to hide?”

Coronis pantomimed zipping her lips. “I’m sorry, I am, but I can’t tell you. I have an oath of confidentiality with my clients.” An illusory mini-Coronis repeated the motion. “I certainly can’t tell you to check the inside wall of her closet: it doesn’t have a false back, so there’s no point.” 

Eve stared blankly. What the hell was Corey going on about? What exactly would Cress have to hide? “I… all right,” she settled on. There was little choice but to trust Corey. Eve couldn’t very well skip back down to Peitho’s office and ask her to take care of it.

Dryas produced the food minutes later: fish-esque and wild rice with tea-boiled eggs and seaweed salad. It smelled heavenly. “Welcome to Lethe-2, by the way,” she told Eve. “Hope the station’s been treating you well.”

It’s been a nightmare that I can’t wake up from. “Still finding my footing,” Eve said with a polite smile.

They made their way upstairs to the Crew Quarters, quiet in the late afternoon. As the securiy officer, Cressida had her own personal quarters at the end of the hall. “This is as far as I go,” said Coronis, pointing at the door. 

“…You really wanted to say that, didn’t you?”

“I did!” she crowed. “Yet another lifelong ambition filled because of you, Mater. But no, I’d rather Cress didn’t know my part in any of this. It’ll look a lot better if you find out on your own.”

“On my own then,” Eve sighed.

“Mmm. Don’t take too long, Cress will be here in a few minutes- every day before dinner, she works out and then comes back here to change. I’m gonna disappear, but I’ll see you later.”

Eve sighed and walked forward. Absurdly, she was nervous. Not afraid… it took something truly terrifying, like the Enyoni, to scare her.

After a moment, it became clear. Eve was nervous about plumbing the depths of Cressida’s soul. Whatever this “secret” was, it had to be deeply personal. Eve would invade Cress’ privacy so she could blackmail her into silence.

It was shitty. Necessary, but shitty. All those years trying to be a good person… what a stupid charade that was. Eve hid in her library, safely insulated from everything difficult about the world, and convinced herself that this was some sort of virtue. Of course she had been good in there- she had been afraid of moral quandaries so she created an environment where she’d never have to make any real decisions. When she thought back to her life as a contented scholar, her belly filled with a cold cement loathing.

She tried to open the door to Cress’ room, only to find it was locked. Eve glanced behind her to see that Coronis was gone. Shit.

Doors carried biometric scanners and motion sensors. If a TORCH agent (or one of the peripatetic robots, like the cleaning bot she saw last night) stood before it, it opened. However, Cress’ door was specially coded to only open to her. A superior officer could override that, but Cress outranked Maia.

There was no time to find Nysa or Libera and convince them to open the door for her. Eve didn’t even know how she’d do that. Nor could she turn back- for all she knew, Cress planned to tell Nysa what she had discovered at dinner. It had to be now.

That left Eve with only one option: break the door down.

Although she hadn’t designed these sessile bases herself, Eve knew the architecture of LUX bases well. The bases weren’t advanced at first glance, but that was because all the really impressive stuff was hidden from sight. Such electronics were easy to tamper with if you knew how they worked. 

For instance, if the door’s sensors were exposed to extreme heat, they automatically reset to factory conditions and unlocked. This was in place as a fire hazard… Eve could exploit it to her own advantage.

She went to set the tray down, and realized her hands were shaking. Of course they were. This wasn’t like her scrap with Peitho, where all Eve had to do was stand still. She would need to take her headband off for this. She would need to muster her rage and hatred- that’d be the easy part- but not let it consume her. Too much and she’d turn Lethe-2 into a smoldering crater.

She pressed her finger to the back of the Arcane Suppressor. It read her fingerprint and the band went slack. She removed the headband with a shaking hand.

<== ==>

LUX #26

<== ==>

 

When Eve got this way, the sort of nausea that permeated every inch of her body and scorched her innards in a dry heat, she did the only thing she could to relax. She sat in a dark room and turned her mind off.

It was a meditation technique she learned when she was young. Eve left her body behind and became a diffused conscience. She imagined herself spreading across this planet, the water and plants and mud and Enyoni. To vanish without dying, to cease as a continuous being, to instead become part of something so much greater than herself. To become unthinking, to attune to magnificent wisdom, to cease to feel but to become part of f this world’s burbles and tantrums and processes.

When she returned to her body, her ass was sore from sitting perfectly still for… over three hours.

Eve stretched her legs and torso as she returned to the hallway. She had to figure out what to do about Peitho’s offer. It was obvious that Eve needed someone down here to help cover her tracks, take care of the problem of Cressida, and keep Nysa at bay. There were two options: spacey and amoral Coronis or cruel and charismatic Peitho.

Eve’s mind was clear after the meditation. She’d give Coronis one last chance to impress her. The worst thing Eve could do was vacillate: she had to make a decisive choice and live with the consequences.

She found Coronis in a corridor outside the mess hall, but not alone. The neo_SMOKE smuggler was in a heated argument with a dark-eyed male agent Eve hadn’t seen before. They both kept their voices low.

“There’s no point in a partnership if one of us doesn’t respect the terms of it,” the male told Coronis, his voice cold.

Coronis scoffed. “Boo hoo! You’ve never once cared about if you were stepping on my toes or not.” A weeping woman appeared at the side of her mouth. “Did I ever say anything?”

“At a certain point, a difference in scale becomes a difference in kind. I can’t work with someone who refuses to show me the basic respect I am due as a colleague.”

“Will you shut up?” Coronis rolled her eyes. “There was no disrespect- it’s a sensitive situation. But if that’s how you feel, maybe I’ll be more anal about which of us does what. Maybe you’ve forgotten that I’m the one who’s supposed to handle drugs?”

The tall man’s eyes flashed and he bit his lip. “Then perhaps it’s time we renegotiate the terms of our partnership to better reflect reality.” He looked up at Eve, who had been standing around awkwardly to listen to the conversation. “Speak of the devil. There she is.”

Eve had little choice but to approach. “Hey Corey,” she said, trying to sound casual. “Who’s your friend?”

“Dis.” He offered his hand. Eve didn’t take it. “Senior Docent and Acquisitions Officer. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Docent Oread.”

Dis was tall, straight-backed and confident, matinee-idol handsome with neatly-cropped hair and a sharp, prominent nose. His hair and eyes were jet black, and his dark pupils gave his stare a vaguely insectoid vibe. He reminded Eve of a tightly wound, delicately constructed wristwatch.. “Nice to meet you,” she said with a small smile. “You guys fighting over me?”

“No, no, not over you,” sighed Coronis. “May, there’s something I should tell you. I’m not the only neo_SMOKE agent in this base. Dis here, or Von Neumann as we call him online, is the other one.”

“Ah. Okay.” Eve didn’t say anything more.

“So, I helped fake your death…” Coronis gave Eve a meaningful glance. “And now Von Neumann is annoyed with me for not including him.”

“It’s not that I wanted to be included, Kelvin. It’s that an operation of that size demands my attentions. That’s part of our charter, isn’t it? Trust no one but your fellows in neo_SMOKE. And yet you exclude me.”

Eve quickly took stock of the situation. Dis, or Von Neumann or whatever he wanted to be called, was a neo_SMOKE agent alongside Coronis. Unlike her, however, he didn’t know that Maia Oread was in fact Eve Volcanis. Coronis had instead lied to him and told him Maia had faked her death and transferred here. “I’m sorry to hear that you two are fighting,” she said neutrally. “I can’t say I know enough about the workings of neo_SMOKE to offer an opinion.”

“That’s okay, May, you don’t need to play peacekeeper between us. neo_SMOKE handles its shit.” Coronis glanced at Dis. “Can we discuss this later? Maybe someplace more private??”

Dis’ eyebrows went up. “Private, eh? Hmph. I’ll be waiting.” He skulked away.

Coronis ran her hands through her hair and exhaled as if to shed an invisible suit of armor. “So…” Eve said conversationally. “You and him, eh?”

“Ugh! Don’t remind me!” Coronis stuck her tongue out and went blegh. “Look, I was young- really young- and stupid.”

“Really stupid?”

“There were piles of bricks with more sense than I had.” A falling brick squashed a little man next to her mouth. “It’s a purely professional relationship these days, I swear.”

Eve quirked her mouth up into a smile. “Didn’t seem all that professional to me. I wonder where that private talk will take you…?”

Coronis’ nose turned pink, but she smiled back. “I assume you want to talk about Cressida?” Eve nodded. “In that case, follow me.”

<== ==>

LUX #25

<== ==>

Eve sighed heavily. Peitho was an obvious snake… but her offer made sense. As enemies they could only harm one another, and Peitho was clearly a control freak who wouldn’t rest until this threat was eliminated. It didn’t do Eve any good to take Peitho down, which would almost certainly give away her identity. To live their lives with blades pointed at one another’s throats simply wasn’t sustainable.

Meanwhile, Peitho’s abilities could be crucial in keeping Eve hidden. A manipulative sociopath was well-suited at keeping secrets unlike the obviously unreliable Coronis. “How am I to trust you?” Eve asked slowly. She didn’t want to take the offer, she would accept any reason to refuse… but she just wasn’t finding one.

“It’s easy to hide things in Lethe-2 from the outside world. Almost impossible to hide things from within the base.” Peitho’s smile grew and grew. “It’s a closed system, and gossip is the only meaningful currency we’ve got down here. Think about all the things you’ve learned since you got here yesterday, and how much of it is stuff someone would rather you didn’t know.”

That was absolutely correct. “So I couldn’t betray you, not without you finding out,” Peitho continued- she really did love the sound of her own voice, didn’t she? “We’d see each other every day. I can tell how sharp you are… do you really think I’d be so much of a bungler as to try anything while under such tight scrutiny?”

All very convincing. “And by the same token… how can you trust me?” Eve asked with a stony stare..

But Peitho had an answer ready for that, too. “You’re desperately hiding something, aren’t you? If I had any doubts before, this conversation confirmed it. You don’t have the luxury of making an enemy of me either. We can’t destroy each other… so we may as well become partners.”

Peitho, Eve noticed, had hidden both her hands under the table. So Eve couldn’t see her bandaged right fist and be reminded of the moment of their meeting. Eve took a series of deep breaths to center herself, then opened her eyes. “What would you want me to do?”

“Do whatever you like. Get high with Coronis. Actually do work. I couldn’t care less. Just let me tend to my projects in peace.”

“Like Eirene?” she asked crisply.

“You don’t understand what she and I have,” Peitho said smoothly, as though Eve had walked in on them arguing. “And honestly, what she and I do together isn’t your business.”

“You beat the shit out of her so you could feed off of her terror,” Eve said, compensating for the churning fury in her gut by forcing her voice to be flat and emotionless. “You’re just a big mosquito who looks like a person. You suck the life from the people around you to keep yourself strong… and you want me to become a part of it.”

“Far from it.” Peitho seemed unruffled by the comment. None of this phased her, or if it did it didn’t show on her face. “I want you to not be a part of it. Just leave us both alone. I know what it looks like, but I have no intentions of hurting Eirene.”

“So what was last night?”

Peitho looked away, her cheeks pinkening. “Err. That’s private. Let’s just say Eirene enjoyed that a lot more than you’d expect.”

What?” Eve felt herself move forward, although she had no input over this decision. Peitho put up her hands defensively. 

“I’m serious! She enjoyed it! That… that’s our foreplay, all right?” Now there was a genuine emotion: fear. Peitho had grasped the gap that existed between them physically… no wonder she was so intent on making an ally of Eve. “She likes it when I’m rough. All the squirming and crying is just… roleplay.”

Eve stopped a few instances in front of the desk, breathing to calm herself. She had come close to a meltdown right here in Peitho’s office. She scowled at Peitho. “Eirene didn’t mention that.”

“Would you give intimate details of your sex life to someone you had just met?” Peitho relaxed once she realized Eve wasn’t going to bound over the desk and crush her like a bug. “She gets off on it. Don’t let that nice girl routine fool you too much, she’s one kinky bitch. And I do care about her, quite deeply. She’s the most precious person in the world to me.”

During their first meeting, Eve had been able to tell when Peitho was sincere and when she was bullshitting. Today, it was harder: everything Peitho said sounded sincere enough. But calling Eirene her most precious person… Peitho was utterly inscrutable. She seemed to both completely believe it and know it to be false all at once. A truth-lie. 

Eirene had seemed half-hearted in her desire for protection. It seemed more like she desired company. And while she did seem afraid of Peitho, her feelings also struck Eve as more complicated than simply wanting her torment to stop.

Did it even really matter that much, what Eirene wanted? Eve didn’t have the luxury to predicate her decision-making almost entirely around how they made some random person feel.

Was Eirene miserable and vulnerable? Certainly. But Eve wasn’t a defender of the downtrodden. She was a monster a thousand times more vile than Peitho, and this knight in shining armor routine was little more than a charade. She was just using Eirene to fuel her delusion that Eve was somehow fundamentally decent. That was a laugh.

Perhaps protecting Eirene was the right thing to do all the same. But that right thing could lead to another meltdown, which would kill everyone aboard Lethe-2- including Eirene.

“I need… some time to think about it,” Eve finally settled on. “Let me get back to you.”

There was a flash of rage in Peitho’s eyes, one that quickly subsided. “By all means,” she said. “I don’t expect to be helped unless it’s out of self-interest on your part… which is something that warrants careful weighing. You know where to find me.”

Eve staggered out of the office feeling worse than she had in months.

<== ==>

LUX #24

<== ==>

The statuesque personnel officer strode in like she owned the place. She would have been more intimidating were it not for her hand, entombed in a mitten of bandages. “I hope you’re enjoying your first day,” she said brightly to Eve. “Which also seems to be a day off.”

“It looks like I’ll be getting some work done today anyways,” Eve replied, standing up to face Peitho. She kept her voice cool. “What do you want?”

Peitho didn’t break eye contact with Eve. Her eyes were milky and pale, with a predatory hunger behind them. “A minute of your time, in fact.” She didn’t even look at Eirene. “It’s protocol for me to interview new arrivals… something I should have done the moment you landed, but you’re the first-ever new arrival so it slipped my mind. Silly me.”

Eve glanced back at Eirene. She couldn’t really say no… and maybe this would be her chance to learn a little more about Peitho. “Okay. Let’s go. Catch you later, Eirene.”

“Yeah Eirene. Catch you later.” Peitho smiled cheerily at the redhead. She led Eve out of Engineering, up two decks to the offices on Deck 5. Peitho’s office was a little too colorful, cheap and tawdry and over-decorated. “Have a seat,” she said, sitting on the other side of the desk.

“I prefer to stand,” Eve said, crossing her arms.

“Sure. So then… Maia Oread. Our woman of mystery, eh?”

Eve said nothing. Boredly, Peitho leafed through a file on her desk. “Previous psyche report describes you as ‘adventurous’, ‘outgoing’, ‘fun-loving’, and ‘effervescent’. My, how you’ve changed.”

Where was Peitho going with this? Eve couldn’t tell. She had so many conversations that could be interpreted as people on the verge of discovering her identity… it was dangerous to snap to that conclusion, though. Some may have just picked up on the friction between the real Eve and the mostly fictional Maia.

“I wonder, why did we need another Enyoni researcher? There are a dozen of them, and I know for a fact eleven of them do no work.” Peitho’s calm smile flickered. “And the file is noticeably devoid of reasons for your transfer. You got injured, spent some time recovering, and now you’re here? Why?”

Nysa had asked the exact same question. That more or less confirmed that Peitho had doubts about her cover identity. “I don’t know,” Eve replied. “They just told me I was being transferred, not why. What does this have to do with your job?”

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot last night.” Peitho’s grin widened. “Eirene and I have a complicated relationship. I know what it looked like, what you saw, but there’s more to it than that. You probably see me as some kind of monster now… but I’m just trying to make my way, same as you.”

She was good. Smooth, clear delivery, eye contact. A fantastic liar. Eve could definitely see people buying this veneer of affable civility. “I saw you for exactly what you are,” Eve said, clenching her fists. “And you can’t fool me. You can try to provoke me, or you can stay far away from Eirene and me. If I were you, I’d go for the latter.”

If Peitho was concerned, it didn’t show on her face. “I can’t do that, unfortunately. So why don’t you and I be friends instead? Eirene is a sweet girl, but she can’t do you any favors. You help me out… and I can make sure nobody asks too many questions about this file of yours.” She pressed her finger to her lips. “Not even Nysa.”

Eve opened her mouth to tell Peitho to go screw, but paused. Did… did she even have the luxury of turning down this offer?

Already, Cressida knew her true identity. Nysa had at least an inkling. Coronis had a big mouth. At this rate her secret would be out in a week. “How do I know you even have that ability?” Eve asked suspiciously. God damn it, she was actually humoring this.

Peitho’s eyes sparkled. “Aren’t you at-all curious as to how a base like this can exist? If LUX at-large knew what a massive waste of money and resources Lethe-2 was, we’d all be tried for crimes of incompetence. Nysa’s solution to this is to fudge her reports and bury her head in the sand- or the water, heh. Your buddy Coronis doesn’t spare a second thought as to how much attention her drug-running brings. And Libera… Libera is barely here. She’s barely anywhere.”

Peitho pointed to herself proudly. “I’m the one who keeps the wheels running. I’m the one who assuages the higher-ups, who deflects whistleblowers, who keeps LUX in the dark about what goes on here. If you had any idea of the kind of shit I’ve buried in my years down here… well, let’s just say I’m the real power behind Lethe-2. Not little Nysa, as much as she thinks she’s in charge.”

“Yeah, you’re really wonderful,” said Eve, feeling her temper climb her throat once more. Peitho truly was a despicable shitstain, wasn’t she? “But if you’re so special, tell me this: why are you down here? Such talent should have carried you to LUX’s Board of Directors, or our representation in Chantico. And if you’re so ambitious and hard-working, shouldn’t you have blown the whistle a long time ago?”

Eve half-expected Peitho to freak out, but instead Peitho just shrugged the comment off. “None of that is your concern. I have my reasons for being down here… just as you do. I can spend some of my valuable time and considerable resources finding out exactly why you’re here, or I can spend it making sure nobody else finds out.”

<== ==>

LUX #23

<== ==>

Eve kept Eirene company in engineering for the rest of the day. Her formal work detail was in the research lab but the events of the morning had shaken her. Something about Eirene’s company was relaxing, though… the engineer had this way of explaining her work in a way that was both soothing and engaging. Eve learned a lot about the complicated relativistic physics and exotic chemistry behind the negative mass engines.

The conversation eventually drifted from engines to Eirene’s life before Lethe-2. “Hey, we were on Pergamon at the same time,” Eirene said as she scribbled some calculations on a holographic screen projected from her watch. “Did you ever go to, uh, Ambrosia?”
“The coffee shop in Module 4? Yes, a few times.” They had a good decaffeinated green tea, Eve remembered. “You were there a lot?”

“My favorite spot. You probably saw me hunched over my screen, headphones on, looking at nobody,” she giggled. “I was antisocial then too. You?”

“The same.” Eve had gotten good at deflecting questions about her past. “You were an engineer on Pergamon?”

Eirene pursed her lips in disappointment and nodded. “But not an applied engineer. I was helping to design a portable LUX base… one that could be loaded onto a ship within a day and moved from place to place. Of course, every inch of something like that had to be as compact and economical as possible. I was working twelve, fourteen hour days for months.”

“Sounds like a good way to get burned out.”

“Well, I thought I had a handle on it until I spilled some water at the office one day and started sobbing inconsolably.” Eirene finished writing. “Here, you can check my math. But yes, I had a nervous breakdown. So they found a new job for me down here.”

Eve looked at the holograph. Most of these formulas were far too complex for her to understand… teleoarcanism didn’t involve many numbers. “As a punishment?”

“More like a vacation. A permanent vacation.” Eirene glanced around. “Lethe-2 is LUX’s Island of Misfit Toys. Everyone is here because they screwed something up at some point… unless you’re the exception to that?”

Eve decided to dodge the question. “You did these equations in your head?”

“Ah, I’m cheating. My power is Vellum Mind- it mostly lets me do useless tricks that a calculator could also handle. I’ll give you an example… punch the air.” Eirene watched Eve make the motion. “So your punch hit at about 10.3 meters per second… not that fast. If you sat on me, I could tell your exact weight.”

“I weigh more than I’m comfortable admitting,” Eve said truthfully. “So your brain functions as an accurate measurement tool?”

“Yeah, more or less. Just a silly little power, hardly any better than useless ones like Corey’s.” Eirene giggled, but her good spirits soon fell. “…I think a lot about what if I didn’t have Vellum Mind. SPRING or PLUTO would have been more interested in me, if I weren’t a witch. Instead I had to go to LUX, where the only thing that matters is results. I couldn’t reach that standard… so they sent me here to die.” She put the paper aside.

Eve said nothing. “That’s what LUX is to you?” she finally managed.

“…Yeah, I guess so. The Mater Veneficis is gone, but she got the branch she wanted. She was so brilliant, but like all brilliant people she didn’t understand how ordinary people think or feel.” Eirene’s smile was rueful. “In the end, the stress caught up to her too, didn’t it?”

Did Eirene have an inkling of Eve’s identity? No… it couldn’t be. She was just talking. “Mmm. A lot of strong opinions on her down here,” Eve said carefully.

“Don’t get me wrong, I liked Eve. I understand how she felt.” Eirene stood up and stretched her legs. “‘The only way we’ll ever be treated as equals is to do excellent work.’ It’s a nice idea. Better than what we have now. Eve isn’t so popular down here, but Hyperion is especially hated… I wouldn’t say her name very loud if I were you.”

“Duly noted.”  Eve hadn’t gotten the chance to talk to many LUX owls since her meltdown. The potential for being recognized when her face was in the newsphere every single day had been too great, and before Lethe-2 she had spent a year hiding out in a FORGE base where everyone wore masks anyways. It was simultaneously refreshing and crushing to hear Eirene complain.

Eirene walked around to the side of the engine, wrench in hand. “I found the problem. There’s a loose bolt,” she said, testing the weight of the wrench. “Four hours of tests and calculations… and it’s a loose bolt. Typical, right? But it’s a triflingly easy fix.” She opened the maintenance hatch on the side and crawled inside. “Good that I caught it when I did, though! A few more days and the damage would have been a thousand times worse.”

Eirene climbed out a moment later, her forehead stained with grease and sweat but her lips curled into a triumphant smile. “There. We’re do-” her smile fell off her face and her mouth opened slightly. The color drained from her face as she stared bug-eyed at the door.

Peitho had just walked in.

<== ==>

LUX #22

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>

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.

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