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.”

<== ==>