There is no dim-death. No darkness, no light. No cold or warm. No scenery. No memory clad in steroids. There is nothing but this sentence:

“Do y...th...that s...t...your m...cr...th...limitations...n...y...body?”

I only hear it once, and I feel myself--every part of me--humming with the sound of my answer:

“Always.”

I don’t have time to think about the context or the moment. I am shocked awake by cold air giving way to colder, slightly tingly liquid. A little denser than water.

I’m naked. I grab the back of my neck to feel my Neuropause. I know it’s there--I’d be dead if it wasn’t, but after crashes, fights, alternative transdimensional landings…it’s an old habit.

I cup some of the brownish liquid, and now that I’m treading it and a few seconds from the shock, I know exactly where I am. I shrug and let myself go under, taking a long drink from the small lake I’ve been plunged into.

Cream soda. A small lake of it--scrubbed and filtered. Bizarre...and magically delicious.

Magic is everywhere in this path, but only in big market capitals do you see silly extravagances like this--Nyxe’s capital and a handful of other places. That meant Chalco and his team hit my destination coordinates out of the park. If he missed my landing point, he wasn’t off by more than 5 meters.

As soon as I get to the shore, I’ve already attracted attention.

“You do see where it says no swimming, don’t you, man-dog?” An all-business skirtsuit asks as I pull myself up on a concrete breaker. “Where on earth is your escort?” It’s more a howl of disgust than a question.

“For fuck’s sake, lady--call the sentries and have me removed already.” I’m busy wiping the fluid from the intecast display on my wrist.

The outfit backed up, not used to being talked to by any human like that--let alone a guy.

I wasn’t going to have a tete-a-tete with every passing windsock--beside the fact that I actually wanted her to call the sentries. Maybe dropping Evisea’s name on another Nyxepolis Sentry could get me a quicker audience with the Governess General.

“I’m sure we can have them remove plenty of things,” The skirtsuit says, plunging an empty sleeve into a purse and producing a cell, which makes me laugh. These things have...some form of telepathy and empathy with each other, but they still emulate the human generation they replaced damn near perfectly.

I hear the thing speaking indignantly to some kind of authority--to the point where I think her former owner must have been someone important. Board member?

“Don’t fucking move,” The thing said--the cell still floating where an ear would be. She must have seen me looking around. Whatever. Now I wanna push it.

“Does it look like I’m moving?” I glare up at the collar now, and I hope she’s looking right at my eyes.

I’ve had a day, okay? I don’t owe this construct anything. A thin coating of sticky cream soda is slowly drying on me; I’m cold, and ANYTHING that could help warm me up here just happens to have its own will and rights. I just risked my life--maybe everything that’s left of my already spotty reputation--to deliver what’s effectively critical war materiel to one of the most powerful paths in the known Ontoverse. I will not be polite to any more empty outfits today.

And the skirtsuit, again, doesn’t know what to think. I’m left staring at it, and I shrug--daring it to talk to me again. I finally stand up.

“Hey, I’m sorry--want a hug?” Shit-eating grin from me as I take a step toward the outfit, but my timing isn’t great. I was expecting to see a giant coat or boots or gloves coming at me from a distance--but what hit me didn’t come from the sidewalks. It came from right above me.

A loop of fabric ringed around my neck, pulling me slightly skyward. I reached my hands up to it, letting my weight off my throat as best I could. When I saw the triangle of fabric, my head crooked to the giant hovering elastic band. The sentry dispatched was a giant black thong, lacy and about my height at the long diameter--which meant if the sentry was actually made for a woman, she’d be something like 30 feet tall.

“What an odd call…” The thong hummed, rolling its loop along my neck until I was close enough to the rear for the band to grab my wrists and coil them up on either side of the thong string. It released my neck once it had my arms. “He came from the other shore?”

“I don’t know where he came from,” The skirtsuit said, still as indignant. “I was the one that had to fend the thing off here and contact YOU to do your job.” As soon as the skirtsuit hissed it, the sentry softened on my wrists.

“Well, the Governess and her agent thank you for your help,” The thong metered the words out coolly. My legs dangled on either side of the thong string as the band gripped my shoulders and wrists, pulling me away and taking to the air again. “Cunt.”

I couldn’t help but snicker.

“You’re not from here--we can skip all that...but if she’s as important as she acts, you might not be going home. I’m not sure I’d be laughing at anything.”

“Home isn’t an option,” I said. “But your government and I are on surprisingly good terms.”

“Are you?!” Her turn to laugh now. “Come to think of if, you seem pretty relaxed with my grab and throttle. You didn’t even yelp. You’ve been here.”

“Many, many times--but only in old Midtown once. I need an audience with the Governess General.”

“Well, you’ll have to do more than pick on a VIP,” she says. “I’m taking you to processing.” She turns over in the air, and now the triangle of fabric on the front panel is under me. “Hold on. There’s no cream soda under you.”

The loops of the waistband uncoiled, and I was dropped onto the lace net on the front panel. I wasn’t being restrained anymore.

“I thought I was picking up another feral, based on the call. Did you slip your escort, or sneak through customs?”

“I landed here,” I shrug, keeping my center of gravity low against the black lace. It smells like lavender and fresh air.

“No shit. Did-you-slip-your-escort...or-sneak-through-customs?” She adds another caveat. “And if you came through a private gate, you’re putting its owner in trouble too.”

“I mean I came through the tear...without a gate.”

Another snicker from her.

“Uh-uh, cutie.” She thinks I’m lying. “Processing is going to have a blast.”

“You can take me to processing, but I’m not going to be processed.” I’m just trying to be straight with her now--not disrespectful like the model citizen back at the memorial. “It’s a waste of their time, and yours. One way or the other, it’s going to go my way.”

“Is it?”

“Uh-huh...and you can make it easier by contacting a Palace Perimeter Sentry named Evisea, who will confirm my last audience with the Governess General.”

“That’s adorable, slick...but I’m pretty sure we’re still flying toward processing.”

I don’t want to explain this to a half-dozen more pushy outfits. I want a fucking shower. This sentry seems reasonable enough to nudge one more time.

“You can feel the ethera on me.” I tune up my intecast, and spend some of my stored ethera trying to lock on to her trajectory in the air. “Listen closely, sweetie.” When I slow her down a little, she notices.

“HEY!” She stops abruptly, and I grab the lace tight before I’m jerked forward. “You…” Now she’s thinking about what I just said. “You just dragged me back.” I tap the intecast.

“I’m a technomutt cheater,” I say, plinking the titanium-vanadium cover of the Neuropause on the back of my neck. “I couldn’t match up against a Lieutenant, but I’m still pretty good with it.” I look up at the waistband. “I can make this a lot harder for you than it needs to be. At least call Evisea to see if I’m lying.”

“Are you threatening me now? You have no escort. You tried to assault a citizen--if I were to file a report as usual. If you’re so damned important,” The thong says, “Why not follow procedure and come through a gate?”

“I had to get in here without an IDOX gate, and I didn’t have a private path fast enough.”

The ethera shifts a little, and I realize it’s in the thong’s intentions. By linking up with her ethereal flow, I could empathize with her--a little like reading body language if she was human. I disengage the intecast and break the connection.

“You really jumped in without a gate,” she finally says. “Your devices can harness the ethera so powerfully?”

“It makes sense you’re thinking in terms of magic--but no. I was sent here by friends.”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m here, and the boss of your bosses is expecting me.” I don’t know how many ways I can tell her ‘let’s go already’. She lets out a noise of exasperation, and there’s silence for a little while before she speaks again.

“You’re a strange man,” She says. “Not feral, but not poised. It’s unnerving.” She starts flying forward again, maintaining her direction.

“You’ve never met one without a leash.”

“I suppose.”

“Interesting that dear leader cleared guys like me off your worldwide playfarm. She obviously still has a use for us when it suits her.”

Probably pushing a little too close to the line on that one--but I do find it funny. Ethera flooded into this plane and sidelined the old status quo. The progress curve of the world changed. The humans of S2U1126 had plans, but those plans were toast. The Vestians--through Nyxe--decided which human customs would continue, and which would disappear.

The first, most important, and strangest thing she set up, though?

A relationship with IDOX. Here was a CONQUEROR that was given diplomatic allowances in what was supposed to be an organization that didn’t tolerate slavery or cruel sentient confinement.

Knowing what I know about Vestinia--how did the IDOX hypocrites allow Nyxe access to their networks and infrastructure?

Human reproduction was mostly Vestian husbandry now--the only humans given any kind of choice in their mates were women who showed particular talents in manipulating ethera. The best of these became officers in Nyxe’s Lieutenant structure.

Labor belonged either to the clothing constructs, or to the tools, vehicles and buildings themselves. Hands and minds of men went idle, and by the end of one generation, those that came of age after the change seemed to be docile, feral, or subservient--depending on whatever use the vestians had in mind for them.

Love and work...constrained. Bound by an ethereal being who found a way to weave herself into every facet of the human infrastructure--to bring the environment to life, imbue it with fragments of our own consciousness and culture, and give the objects supremacy over the creatures who built it.

But it wasn’t slavery, as far as IDOX saw it. Nope. Because it was sparked by an “anomalous bridge between relatively harmonized paths” and not an invasion through technological supremacy, well--sometimes this was how things went. It would have been against IDOX primacy procedure in Nascent Isolation to get involved and save S2U1126.

The story of how Nyxe was allowed in was full of lies, told a million different ways. One story said 1126’s scientific facilities weakened the reality walls and gave Nyxe an opening to cross over. Another said that a secret society worked for generations to bring Nyxe into being.

One of the most detailed claimed that some kind of occult knowledge met up with the right human talent, and a handful of teenage girls literally found a way to harness geo-bound etheral energies in an ethera-weak world. When they used it to open the door...they released Nyxe.

But it goes the extra mile for sequel points: apparently the same talented ladies who caused the ruin of this path found a way to hold her back for about 15 years until carelessness released her again.

Woops. Folly of man. Forget 10000 generations of eka-apes scraping their way forward and growing brains enough to break atmo and land on their own moon. If those same eka-apes were stupid enough to open the tear and invite something like Nyxe in, they deserved what they got.

That’s how it looked on paper, at least. That’s how IDOX justified it.

“When she doesn’t have a use for you anymore,” The sentry said, curling her lace panel around me and squeezing, “You still might wind up here.”

She wants to keep her air of control, but I can tell from our path that we’re palace-bound.

“I’ll go to the entry mezzanine and ask for your contact,” She continues. “If you’re lying, we’re going to processing, and I’ll take care of the first phase myself.”

“Come on,” I say. “If I was lying, you’d smell my fear.”

“You’re half-robot,” She answers. “You can probably suppress fear with those toys of yours.”

“Even so, you believe me.”

“I don’t want you to be my administrative problem. When we land, let me do the talking.” I nod. “I need your full name and origin.”

“Kalin Adriksehn of Systemia,” I say. “Ischarisla and Sarinisids-6.”

“A Systemian.” She’s incredulous. “A Systemian working under the cloak.”

“You asked,” I shrug. “And I call you…”

“An idiot for going to the palace, putting myself in front of another sentry, and letting her know that you demand a waiting audience with our Governess General.”

“No,” I say. “You’re only going to ask for Evisea. Keep my employment to yourself.” I feel a tremor roll through the lace in response to my attitude. I’m giving her orders...maybe she’s actually getting a kick out of it.

“If you’re lying, we still execute people.” Dire warning, but playful tone. By now I think she’s come around to me.

“How many men do you see here, do you?”

“I’m a sentry. I see men all the time. I don’t see free men.”

“Escapees?” I already know the answer to this, but I’m making conversation.

“Runaways from EAC farms are rare. It’s not really possible to leave without help. Pets and private bred, mostly.”

I smile and lean back, relaxing on the fabric triangle. “I must be your most well-positioned capture.” The back of the lace panel bumped--and I was sent upright again.

“Well-positioned or not...you’re a man, and I shouldn’t be seen carrying one so relaxed. Stop fidgeting, wipe the expression off your face, and behave like you’re owned.” I put my hands up and nodded, giving in. She was taking me where I needed to go, after all. It seemed stupid to push it any further.

“Got it. Thanks for the ride.”

“I don’t need your gratitude. Pay me back in cooperation.”

Sentries were always less playful than gate guards--it seemed to be a usual thing. The sentries were, after all, made to be intimidating--to dwarf guys like me and, at best, to psychologically break them with nothing more than visual stimulus. From there, force would be applied if it was necessary.

I was quiet for the rest of our flying time, which was only a couple more minutes. When we approached the Mezzanine level of the palace, she let me know to shut up one last time. From there--things went smoother than expected.

Another sentry was waiting on the platform--a red satin shirt that seemed like she’d match up nicely with Evisea--about two to three times the size of an average woman’s blouse. As soon as we came to a stop over the platform, the second sentry approached--but as it did, I saw her.

Graceful black leather legs, crossing one over another as they left the portal. Sauntering hips. Tight, tight fit. Did she know I was coming?

“That’s her,” I whispered to the thong. I barely got the words out before the black lace sentry turned over, dumping me on the platform as the shirt approached.

“He’s mine…” Evisea said, catching up easily with her long, graceful strides. “I’d have found him earlier if he could read a clock.”

“Yours?” The other sentry said, turning back to me and the thong. “So where are you coming from?”

“I found him in bathing in Sweetwater Memorial,” she said. She turned herself upright, and she didn’t hesitate to take off. “Your problem now, ladies.”

No goodbye. My position really had creeped her out; she wanted nothing else to do with me.

“Where’s he going?” The construct asked Evisea. The leather pants approached, standing over me as I picked myself up.

“To the Governess General,” Evisea replied back. It was unceremonious. If she was happy to see me again, she wasn’t making a show of it. There was a nod between them--or something--whatever the equivalent for living clothes is. Evisea leaned toward me, and I felt gravity lose its grip as I rose off the ground. I let everything happen. Knowing she was carrying me back to the Governess’ chamber kind of set me at ease. It was the first thing to go right since I’d been caught by the Syntyche.

I rose all the way up and beyond her waistline, placed just over her giantess form by her own ethereal manipulation. What I didn’t expect was the satin construct to drape around me, buttoning me into it.

“Glad you found me,” I said, staring at the satin chest from the inside. “Who’s your friend?”

“Stay quiet,” Evisea whispered. “She doesn’t want you to be seen this time.”

Maybe that was the reason for the matching construct. I simply nodded, looking down at myself and cursing my landing spot any time I moved my legs. I was naked, coated in cream soda runoff and going in front of Nyxe, High Governess General of Vestinia.

What was I supposed to tell her about the task she assigned me? Technically, I’d delivered. I connected her agent with her contact in the Syntyche Sovereign Area, and I’d left the secure zone.

Did it matter that I was captured, or that her agent was caught after my delivery?

Not to a smuggler. I did my job.

Now it was up to me to convince Nyxe that I deserved my payment. If I got everything I was promised, it would mean a step in the right direction to finding my own way around the tear without having to use the extensive resources of the Syntyche, which were now barred to me, along with every official IDOX administered res-gate.

A private gate from Vestinia could get me to some secondary paths with extensive private gate collections. It was going to cost a lot more to travel, but again--it was a means to restarting my mobility after having my credentials stripped from me.

But I didn’t know what Nyxe knew--and I couldn’t give up a sliver of information worrying about a potential. I had to check subroutines and set up blocks in the neuropause. She had a way of peeling back obscurities and getting to details, and I couldn’t weather a full inquiry without every trick available to me.

I heard the chamber door open--recognized the sound. Still suspended in the empty space inside of Evisea and her silk colleague, I felt us move to the middle of the room.

“You may both go,” A familiar voice sounded. “But Evisea--don’t stray far. I may need you again soon.” With those words, the garments separated from each other again while I remained hanging in empty space. When they both moved through the chamber door, it shut behind them, leaving me in dim, violet-tinged light. “The Systemian returns,” Nyxe says. “Was your visit to the Syntyche hospitable?”

I can almost feel the searing heat running down my back when she asks. The tortures brought on by the Syntyche are fresh in my head, and this close to the trauma, the memories weren’t something I could readily remove. I hadn’t even truly slept since the capture.

“Uneventful,” I said. “Best I could hope for.” I feel her, invisibly pulsing through the room--concentrating around me and beginning to condense. “You’re really being generous for an hour long job. I appreciate it.” No lies in that pile.

“No snags? No grey ghosts living in your head?” It’s her royal eyes first, surrounded by violet mist, glowing as it weaves near-black hair, asserted brows, and a poker face lip--curled neither up nor down.

“I left her there, and they let me out.” Not a lie.

“Not very anxious for your payment, then?” She swoops around me as more of her body is written into solid reality--neck, collarbones, shoulders, breasts...a black sheath dress saunters out of a far closet and approaches us.

“Your job was priority one. Collecting on it didn’t make two three or four.”

I keep my eyes forward as she walks around me. I can hear the dress unzip and slide around her solidifying hips before her legs are present. As soon as she touches my shoulder, the sensory trigger hits.

Sensory/All/SensoryDim_?AbsolutePercentage:33;

“Oh, piss on that thing, Systemian.” There’s a disappointment in her voice that could turn angry fast.

“You could feel that?” I ask.

“I could last time. It doesn’t have to be an off switch.” She grabs a handful of my hair and pulls as she approaches my other ear from behind. “And I can feel something else.”

“Exhaustion?” I say.

“That’s there...certainly...the sweat of labor--and labor well done, Kalin…” A kiss on my cheek as she swings around again, her whole body substantiated by now. A pair of black pumps steps from the same closet as the sheath dress, and Nyxe steps into them. “...but no. Something happened to you, darling. An anxiety I didn’t see earlier. You do need your payment, and critically. Some situation changed. Am I right?”

I shrug a little.

“Well beyond the stature of your concern, Governess.”

“I care about all my citizens, Kalin.” The first name again. “Their concerns are my concerns.” Now she’s in front of me. “And if you should, for any reason, take issue with how I govern--for example in the management of my vital UAC farms--you are free to cash in the value of your payment for any currency I carry.”

“So you heard that.” Trying to stay cool here.

“I’m not an idiot,” Nyxe said. “I told you when I hired you for the job: I know who you are.”

“Whatever my personal feelings, I know better than to interfere with those that butter my bread. I work for IDOX, after all.”

“Do you?” She smiles. “Funny...I couldn’t find your name on the rolls as of noon today. It’s almost as if you disappeared.” She leans into me and bows her head a bit. She grabs my neck with a small, soft hand and licks me from chin to cheek. “Mmm...you walk in looking for payment via a safe house, and now I can’t find you on any records. It’s almost as if someone was giving me permission to keep you.”

Suspension for reasons undisclosed. Unenrollment. Dark records.

“If you’re having trouble with the authorities, I’m willing to host you,” she says, smiling at me as she drapes her arms around my shoulders. “No one knows more about the hypocrisy of the process than me...but I need your good faith.” She’s getting close, searching my eyes. She looks all of 25, but I know better. This one has been around for a long time, waiting to find a structure--a culture--to latch onto and use.

And hey--she could have done worse.

“I don’t know shit about this place,” I lie. “I see what I see because I couldn’t live that way. I’m not a crusader, though. You know better.”

“You were talking about my generosity to my face, Kalin.” She smiles sweetly, showing teeth. “You slight me as a tyrant in front of one of my loyal phalanx?”

“Like I said, I was just--” Her eyes burn, and my jaw snaps shut from etheral force. I don’t bother opening up the intecast to fight her. That’s a path to becoming her new pillowcase.

“You’re going to APOLOGIZE when you feel me release your jaw, and you’re going to do so in a way that pleases me.” I manage a nod. “And while you’re a guest here, you will not disrupt us, you will respect our law, and you will be assigned an escort to be present with you anywhere in Vestinia that doesn’t comprise your familiar diplomatic district or your mobile safehouse. Follow these rules, NEVER DISRESPECT ME AGAIN in my spheres of influence, and I and my lieutenants promise you free passage over the city and my provinces--and I will not interfere with your extradimensional business unless it presents a direct pressure on my governance. Is that understood?” And as soon as she psychically releases me, I nod again.

“Forgive me, Governess. I insulted your grace before your subject, and did so in your sovereign territory. I--”

“Fucking shut up. I don’t want fake diplomatic dance. You’re a brute. Words are nothing but weakness and poetry to a thing like you.” She takes a step back, holding up a foot. “Knees.”

I drop to them. I’m looking at the black flat, which wiggles off her toes and exposes her foot.

“Lick.”

When I hesitate for a split second, the flat flies behind my head and pushes me forward, into Nyxe’s foot. I lick it from heel to toe, breathing in her scent as I do. Lilac and cotton candy, and clean as spring rain.

Which makes sense. She just substantiated herself from nothing.

“Again.” I follow her instruction as she continues, lifting her other foot and shoving the ball against my nose. She’s hovering now, sitting on nothing but air with her feet pointed at me. “You have a lot going on. I can sense the tension. You’d tell me if there was something I could help with, right?”

She’s training me. ‘Do as I say, and you win my favor.’ There’s a few reasons I can’t ask her for help, the least of which is my lack of trust. I tune up the neuropause again.

Sensory/All/SensoryDim_?AbsolutePercentage:75;

“I appreciate it, but there’s a few things I need to take care of on my own.”

“So be it. I will arrange for Evisea to bring you to your escort. I expect you’ll be pleased with your accomodations--they add some of my own notes to your design requirements. If I’ve missed anything, you can contact me there.” She let out a pleased sound, pointing at her heel. “The whole sole. Heel to toe again.” I lick her, imagining myself inside her again. Lost in fantasy.

“My best staff pays well for good company,” Nyxe said. “I have a feeling you’re going to be around more often than you expected.”

“Oh?” I reach up to her small, perfect foot, massaging it from the sides and up through the toes. “What makes you say that?”

“You don’t want to talk about it,” She says, “so I’m being polite.” She turns over in the air and shows off her ass in the sheath dress. Her soles are facing me upside down, and I bury my face in them. I’m not particularly a foot guy--but I can’t get enough right now. She has a pull. A scent. I don’t know.

“If the situation changes, you’ll be the first to know,” I tell her. “And I will need work. And connections. I’ll be indisposed with other responsibilities from time to time, so I can’t be on call, but--I’m willing to work. For you or your staff.”

She looks over her shoulder and grins at me. “I know. All of it.”

All of it? I’m not sure what she means by it, and she must see me thinking, because she seems to respond to my expression.

“If there’s something you want to keep from me, don’t say any more. If it’s nothing to do with me, I don’t need to put pressure on you. I have all the leverage here.”

A teleontonic channel opens on the neuropause paths, and I hear it come in clearly after it disorients me for a second.

ASK ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE DELIVERY.

It’s the maintenance dialog. It’s how the Tykes hacked me.

“Can I...ask what I delivered to the Syntyche? I mean, what’ll she do there?”

“Can I ask you about Arespolit?” I go cold. My deep history is traveling. Much, much farther than I can afford. “I thought not. We’ll stay better friends if we don’t dig, Systemian. You share--I’ll share. We can build something over time.”

Her toes go under my chin, and her foot lifts, raising me right off the ground as she sails higher in the chamber.

“I heard what you said about my rule here,” Nyxe said. “And I appreciate your sentiments about freedom--as a creature of will. But you expect all individuals to be afforded everlasting opportunity to find their potentials.” She shook her head. “Nature doesn’t allow for it. Neither does efficiency. She’s cruel, and she programs you, the great apes, and most of the high mammals into misery. Scarcity. Cannibalism.
“But I fulfill human nature, Kalin. I let you serve the way you were made to serve. You call me a tyrant, but you see it incorrectly. I’m just the road map. My lieutenants are all human women--from this path. Their subordinates are humans and my constructs. They administer over a path of peace and plenty. No human wants for food, shelter or stimulation. I’m on the way to restoring massive tracts of land to natural preserve.”

“And the men?”

“Are happy as pigs in shit,” She says, waving me off. “Come on now, Kalin. The competitive ones run and hunt. The servile ones serve. The cute ones are housepets. They live whole lives based on fantasies that were a luxury two generations ago.” She sneered. “Am I a tyrant?”

“I don’t know--but all my best employers have been. You wouldn’t be in terrible company.” I sail toward the door as she shoos me away with her foot.

“You need a shower--and then we need to activate your mobile base. It’s complete, but inert. I need to tie it to your etheral signature, and there’s...a bit of a procedure to do so.” There’s a grin on her face. “The water runs, the lights work--but nothing’s awake. Evisea will take you to your escort--and your escort will bring you to your villa. I’ll meet you there soon, once I take care of something.

The door opens, and as I slip out, I call back to her.

“Thank you, your eminence.”

My feet meet the ground again outside, and Evisea and the blouse are waiting.

“Are you ready to go?” No longer business now. Warm. “Raquela and I can take the long way if you’d like.”

Sensory/All/SensoryDim_?AbsolutePercentage:00;

“So you did miss me?” I asked.

--