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 #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

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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 #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?”

<== ==>