Adriksehn:Skipper

1.9 The Arespolit Abbatoir

发挥法理
FA HUI FA LI

Dim-Death hadn’t dropped him down to a knee in a very long time, but he almost felt himself give way as he landed on the main intake gate for pre-processed inmates of the Shen Zhu correctional institution.

There were at least two dozen rail guns on him. Two sentries had rolled into place, targeting the receiver bay the moment it began to charge.

Candymaker’s hood had fallen back. He steadied himself on the ramp, looking up and holding his palms out with his fingertips touched against his bronzed head. A flash of blue light spread across him in a grid pattern, then a second one in neon pink.

Méngyǒu!” A soldier on the deck withdrew his rifle.

Méngyǒu,” his secondaries echoed, following his motion and withdrawing their own weapons. Now the sentry guns rolled back to ready position, dropping their target.

A dark-haired man emerged from the gatehouse. Candymaker watched the soldiers clear the man’s path as he crossed the quarantine zone and approached the ramp. Candymaker dropped his hands, reaching out his right palm.

You stupid old man!” The black-haired man said laughing, clasping Candymaker on the wrist with one hand as he shook the extended hand with the other. “You know this is a processing gate.” The man laughed through a drawn-up sneer. “Are sales so bad that you’ve got a death wish?”

“You know I love attention,” Candymaker smiled. “And I love a warm welcome.” The two leaned in for a fast, friendly embrace.

“Nothing warmer than an iridium bath from my guards’ rifles, you old fool,” The black-haired man said. “What are you doing here?”

“I need an unscheduled visit with my safety deposit box,” Candymaker said. The man’s face spun tension as he took a deep breath and answered discreetly.

“Your credit, Erga...it’s not that I would refuse to help an old friend—” The black-haired man got quieter as he approached. “Your house is coming up more often in the assembly reports. Between the issues among the Vestiniad and yet another one of your agents disappearing from the clearance lists—” Candymaker put a hand up.

“That strained look is precisely why I came here first, Gang. Today I have a payment for your Warden that you will never find on another convoy—trader or diplomat.”

“Business over a meal, then,” said Gang, gesturing Candymaker toward the gatehouse. “Then we’ll see about a discussion with the Warden, or your friend in custody.” As they strode to the gate house, he gave a slight nod to his second.

The other man nodded, heading to the resonance bank records. The last landing was scrubbed.

 

VY

A snarling beast was pulling against its ground-anchored chains as two humanoids in full combat armor retreated slightly. One of them was crouched over a makeshift control panel, fiddling with it as energy sparked between two metallic poles set in front of the beast. The other held something that looked like a cattle prod.

”Have you got it?” The one holding the prod asked. The other simply nodded. “How long until it activates? This thing is going to break off the anchors!”

“Relax,” The other man said. “This calibrator is patched together poorly for a reason—and I only have to get it right once. That thing might be starving, but it can’t eat anything we’ve got, and it knows that. It’s panicking.” This didn’t seem to settle the other man.

“Okay, but—do you hear the sounds it’s making? Look at it!”

“That’s exactly how you’d sound if your oxygen was getting thinner and thinner,” The man at the console said. “You know why we came here first.”

“Well...not exactly.” The man at the console shook his head. "I mean, because we won't be seen, right? There's nothing here."

“It was in the taskmaster, stupid. Don’t just follow me around—read the synopsis before we start these things. You’re gonna get us killed when have a job with any real danger.”

“So...there’s no—danger here?” The man with the prod looked back at the beast, wrenching itself back, crouching close to the ground and wrenching again.

“It's a magic eater.” The man at the panel said. Some kind of realization struck for the other.

“Vy is...eth-depleting, isn’t it?”

“Now it’s clicking. We’re slowly suffocating that poor thing, you get it?” He backed off of the console as a charge struck between the poles, making them hum. “Oooooh. We're on. Riding a green-light frequency, too. They won't see it coming until it's too late. Keep that prod near him...twenty seconds!” The resonance gate nearby wasn’t like the tarnished metallic portals on Ischarisla, or the gleaming silvery gates of the Syntyche. This one was makeshift. Bare bones, looking like it was assembled from spare parts. Barely working. Temporary.

“Prod’s charged, Lim! Do you think I’m gonna have to—”

“Uh-uh. Only if it breaks anchor beforehand. If it runs in a panic, it’ll burn the fuel it has left and snuff itself out. We're fucked if we have to get another one. Just be ready. The moment it sniffs what’s on the other side of this gate, there’s no other direction it’s going to run.”

 

VESTINIA

“Honey. Baby doll.” The suit shrugged at Bailey. “You have to trust me. He’s waaaaaaay on the other side of the city on some kind of moving platform.”

“I’m not going to just...do that.” Bailey said, smoothing her skirt. Her pantyhose ruffled the skirt in response, showing off their newly extended will. "I have decorum to maintain here."

“Listen, you want the entrance you want? You’ve got to trust me.”

“You’re way too much like him.” Bailey said. “Getting pushy now that you’re on home turf or something?” Bailey’s skirt rose up in the back. “Quit that!” She shouted to her pantyhose.

“I’m sorry,” Bailey’s panyhose said. “I’m getting a feel for what I can do here. It’s like the air is made of electric.”

“It’s the ethera density,” Kalin’s suit said. “You’ll find you can extend your will beyond your form more easily here...without their fuel.” Bailey huffed as she smoothed the skirt again. “Bailey...you know the custom here. Indulge.” 

“It probably would make things easier,” Bailey’s Pantyhose said.

“Knock it off, both of you!” Bailey huffed. “I’m a diplomat, and despite how you might normally treat humans here, you can be punished for messing with me,” Bailey said. She turned to the suit. “You can actually sense him, then?” The collar nodded at her.

“To the meter,” It confirmed. “It’s how I know he’s moving.”

“Then direct the escort. I’ll wait, thank you.” Both entities seemed to mope, and Bailey looked around at the skyline, wondering if she could see his new ride somewhere in the mezzanines.

 

* * *

 

“A...restaurant?” Ava asks, looking around the aft of B-Deck. The design was something out of a luxury lounge on Gar Medec in Panephin. Glossy marble floors with glass inlays, lit from the floor. Black tables. Mosaic and teak walls. Semi-mirrored ceiling. Too garish for some, but not for me...since it was my sense of decoration that built it.

“A lounge,” I tell her. “I’m a free male in Vestinia, Ava,” I explain. “I can’t just drift up here alone in a mobile platform without attracting some attention, and I want that attention to be useful to me.”

“A cover,” The gleaming catsuit responds.

“More than a cover,” I say. “An intelligence asset. A hub of information. We have the same employer, don’t we?” She doesn’t say a word, but even without my intecast reading the ether around me I can tell this is something akin to blushing for a Vestian. “Don’t worry, I get it,” I tell her. “My point is that we both have our jobs, and I know that my payment here—of this—” I motion around me to my new digs, “Isn’t complete. Not ever. I’ll be paying taxes on it for as long as my resident xeno-tenancy lasts.”

“You believe there’s strings attached to this?” Ava asks me. “Why?” The governess general could be more subtle about having her agents pump me for information like this, but whatever. Maybe she’s starting simple to see how I speak.

“Because our employer understands asset management,” I say. “It’s not a feeling, Ava. She’s explained as much, and I’m happy to be of service in exchange for all this. A mobile platform in the capital city isn’t exactly a small favor.” Nothing about my silent IDOX revocation. Nothing about my scrubbed clearances, my prohibition from The Syntyche’s banks. I have no idea how deep the Syntyche can tap remotely, no idea how much Nyxe has gleaned from a Neuropause-free connection to my mind. The only thing I can do is walk forward with as much confidence as I can call upon.

I have literally spoken to the Tychabrahma, and in every intelligence circle I’ve ever run with, that should mean I’m dead. The fact that I’m not has to mean something, and ‘getting out of the situation’ doesn’t seem to be a feasible concern, let alone a goal.

I have a sick sort of curiosity in discovering how I’m going to be used by the competing power-brokers, if I’m being honest. 

Are there ethera wells on Syntyche?

I never got an answer to that question. Maybe Nyxe’s attempt at subterfuge has given them some kind of gift—something so valuable that killing my usefully-ignorant ass might be contrary to customs that even the top Syntyche architect won’t break.

“It is quite beautiful,” Ava finally says. “She’s made incredible work of your whims, hasn’t she?”

“Absolutely,” I say, looking out B-deck’s aft. The shutters are wide open, and the sun is setting over what was once New Jersey. The sky is dotted with other fixed, suspended structures among the mezzanine levels above Nyxepolis, reflecting through the diffused sunlight and beginning to glow with their own ethereal energy.

“Outside of personal quarters, you have a full commercial kitchen and two other functioning bars,” Ava says. “We should talk about the humans who will be staffing your facilities.” I look at the sleek catsuit, and I can’t help but stare at the amazing shape of her breasts before I focus just above the collar again and speak. "Your vestian staff is still being fabricated, and they'll be oriented soon—but we don't just create humans from thin air. We'll have to vet and hire."

“I’ll tell you right now,” I square myself as I say it, “my staff will be preparing and serving meat.” An empty sleeve flicks her invisible wrist back in a sort of half shrug.

“I’d expect no less from a barbarian,” she says without skipping a beat. “That will modify the type of clientele you get, just so you’re aware.” I've mentioned it before, but ever since the change here, consumed flesh—particularly in the cities—is pretty unfashionable. Despite the economy running on completely different terms after Nyxe’s takeover, meat has since become rarer, and thus more expensive.

“My platform won’t be a sideshow gallery, Ava,” I tell her. “It’s not going to be a museum where the mod, fête-going citizens of Nyxepolis entertain themselves by paying a visit to the barbarian’s platform and watch him attempt to manage in a society that has evolved beyond him.” Okay, maybe a little defensive, but I want to make a point.

“And I’ll tell you, sir,” She somehow emphasizes without being facetious, “that attempting to set yourself apart by serving rendered flesh will attract as many circus-goers as it disgusts.” An audible sigh comes from the catsuit—an etheral body without lungs. “The more you play up the barbarian role in our society’s stereotype…”

“No, I get it—I get it,” I relent. “But I’m a meat eater. I know that’s a big deal to some of you, but I’m gonna need a human staff who understands it.” For everything else I’m giving up here, the carnivorous side of my diet won’t be another.

“I want you to know that—short of treason to the Lieutenancy—myself, Racquela and Evisea are going to do everything you ask.” The shining black sleeve reaches toward me, and I feel the touch of an invisible hand on my shoulder. “Bearing that in mind, if you have some particular social objectives for this platform...tell me what you’re looking for so that I can help you.”

“I need the subversives,” I sigh, leaning against a sill of the aft shutters and staring at her collar. “I need a mix of the transgressors, the cynics…maybe even the undesirables.” I stop short of telling her more. Vestians can mine information from people, and if I’m trying to hold cards from Nyxe’s sight, I have to hold them from Ava’s as well.

“Can I ask why?” Skaj. Asking outright demands some kind of answer.

“I’m collecting intelligence as much as you are. If this place is going to be a forward operating base for me, I’m going to need contacts that are a little more dangerous than the usual fun-loving Vestian.”

“More dangerous than I am?” She ignores my second not-so-subtle accusation as her sleeve slides lower, and a finger traces down my shirt. “It’s so bizarre to feel you dressed in something that can’t answer me on its own,” she says, unbuttoning my top button.

“I’m sucking up the ethera it’s wicking,” I tell her, “Just enough to keep him, her, it(?) asleep.” Her other sleeve reaches out to my arm, which I hand over. Even as she traces her invisible fingertips over my palm, my cufflink opens up, and my sleeve rolls back.

“I can feel it a little bit,” She says. I can tell she’s looking at my charged Intecast, its second yellow indicator steadily fading in and out. “It’s pulling on my own charge where I’m touching you...but it’s nothing uncomfortable. What happens when you fill it up?” We’re getting off track again, but I indulge her.

“It’s like anything else,” I smile. “I have to discharge it.” She laughs a little, pushing her black latex body up against me.

“You want a mixture of the connected and the subversive,” she says. “Hmm.” Her voice is close, I try to hold myself steady despite the fact that I know she’s leaning in. “If you want to peddle flesh,” She whispers, “Then you have to diversify your offerings.” I shudder a little as I feel invisible teeth just barely pull on my earlobe. My hands wrap around her latex rear, and I give it a little squeeze.

“You mean I should trade in human pets,” I say.

“Among other things,” She says. My shirt collar opens up on its own, and I feel soft lips against my collarbone as I stare down into the dark emptiness of her catsuit. “Peak physical forms, male and female. For rent or for sale.”

A little light slave trade. Ava wants me to engage in Vestinian slave trade.

“That’s a dense irony from a society who wants to call me a barbarian for slinging some burgers or a cut of steak,” I tell her. Immediately, the lips pull back, and her ass tenses before she takes a step back, making me release her.

“I’m bored of arguing politics with you, Kalin,” She says. “You want to know how to attract a certain kind of clientele—a certain kind of information—and I am happy to explain how.” She sniffs a little (again, without a nose…) “But since you decided to bait me, I’ll just add that we don’t mutilate our pets and fry them.” I put my hands up, chuckling a little.

“Listen, that’s fair. It’s just…” What, prohibited by IDOX? Against diplomatic charter? Maybe I’m worried that the Tychabrahma will look down on me. Skaj. I laugh aloud again. “That’s fair.”

“Keep the quality of your offerings narrow,” She says, turning back toward the empty tables and booths. I follow behind after taking one last look at the setting sun. “Only the best. As I said, peak physical forms. The best toys, the best pets, the best carne, the best adulterants for the limited few. The best of all flesh and blood,” She raises her sleeves, turning back to me.

“And you’re going to keep all this...legal,” I say, “per the Lieutenancy.”

“I demand it,” She shrugs. “Our High Governess General demands it.” I nod.

“So set it up,” I sigh. “If I can’t trust the licorice-lilt who flew me fucking through the skies of her capital city, who can I trust?”

“With the people you want to invite here?” Ava says, “Me, Evisea, and Raquela—and any particular security connections we make for you...but no one else.” I can tell from her tone that she’s not kidding.

“Yeah?”

“You want subversive and connected?” Smug now. Sort of you-asked-for-this. “We’ll make it happen, but outside of our inner circle, make sure you put that tech of yours to work once we get popular up here, because subversive and connected you will get.”

“All because I wanted some burgers,” I joke.

“Oh, shut up,” She waves me off. “Let me set up the vetting process and put out some offers,” She says. “In the meantime, your security support staff will have to be tight—so I’ll get our Sentinels in on that detail.”

“Are you telling me to go find something else to do?” I ask as she heads toward the core lifts.

“Perhaps stop harvesting ethera for a while and make friends with your suit,” She says. “You’re going to have to get used to wearing us—awake—if you want to fit in.” I think about it, chuckling to myself as I watch my Intecast charge jump from yellow-two to amber-one.

 

发挥法理
FA HUI FA LI

“You have 10 minutes,” The black-haired man said. “Be succinct, Erga, and remind Mr. Hewitt...he’s dead.” Candymaker nodded as the door shut behind him. He kept walking as the power to the empty wing was cut, the blue and white lights giving way to the sickly orange-yellow glow of Shen Za Li’s eternal dusk, echoing through the cell shafts.

The quiet footsteps stopped in front of the only occupied cell, where a man’s seated silhouette was cut against the barely visible light diffusing through his barred window on the other side.

“That’s the, uh, issue with burying all these lines, Feng—you can never tell where the short is.” The voice was young and cheerful. The silhouette never moved. “What can I do for you?”

“Mister...Hewitt.” The moment Candymaker’s voice struck his ears, the silhouette shifted to show him a profile of the face he was looking for.

“Ha,” quieter than when he first spoke, the silhouette seemed to know that he needed to be careful. “I haven’t seen that Tangerine-colored light drop away but once since I’ve been here...so something changed, hmm? Something big.”

“The starting striker is out on injury,” Candymaker said. “I can’t change my plays with the bookie.”

“Skaj,” The man uttered in profane Ischarislan. “Maybe he’s in the cell-block above me?” The figure laughed, but Candymaker knew that his cheerful tone was just a show now. He wasn’t going to be receptive.

“You were placed here because no one would be looking for you,” Candymaker said. “Now our time is limited, and I’m left with options that are...less than appealing, but—”

“What do the old men say?” The figure stretched his legs and stood up. “I haven’t touched my clearances.” The figure approached the cell wall facing the corridor. “Have not so much as triggered a gate log in two years, and now—OH! There he is. He must’ve been taking a break. Good for him! Get right back on that saddle, Hen—”

“Keep your voice down,” Candymaker said through his teeth. “Any antagonistic players from our last game are...no longer an issue,” He said. The man laughed.

“Oh, I bet.” Maybe the Arespolit Abattoir cleaned them out prematurely. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t an option. Who else could Erga’s starting striker be?  “I was here for a little OT for my own good, then.”

“You were treated well, I made certain of that.”

“A cage is a cage,” The man said, just behind the wall now. “But! But I was prepared—absolutely determined, in fact— to serve out the rest of our appointed time here. Not just for the well-being of my team, or you…but for my own spiritual well-being. My penance.”

Candymaker didn’t say a word. His ten minutes were running slim already, but he had to expect some blowback from this change of plans. In so many ways, he was the polar opposite of Kalin at his core. In others, he’d grown into every bad habit Kalin had somehow grown out of.

“I’m not gonna lie, it’s nice to know what to expect, C.” The man said quietly. “It’s nice to know that my credit is just out there waiting for me, and that I could have sat out the clock, shook your hand, and been on my way.”

“That’s never how it works,” Candymaker said.

“And, you know...I knew that,” The man laughed. “I knew that, but something like 500 Ischarislan days makes you believe stupid things,” He said. “The guards are really friendly. I think they like having someone to talk to that isn’t constantly trying to tear them a new asshole. Feng, actually, is a pleasure to talk to.”

“You might be the only prisoner here who has a cordial relationship with the warden,” Candymaker replied. “And the food?”

“Fuck yourself,” The man said quietly, letting out a little laugh and turning his back on Candymaker. “You’re right, I was treated well. I had access to the information I wanted to have access to, they gave me the subterranean gym when it wasn’t being used by other blocks, even had a couple sparring partners to actually keep me in practice…and some of Gang’s guys are really good...” The man sighed. “Fuck yourself, Erga. You know I’m going to do it for them. Whatever they need.” 

The figure let out a sneer, turning back to face the corridor wall again, getting close.

“You know, you’re so good because we don’t have to love you. We don’t have to give a fuck about you. But you know — and it’s how you lock us up together — you know we care about each other. You know that even if we don’t look at you as ‘daddy’, we look at each other like we’re brothers and sisters. Candymaker’s little orphans.”

“You wouldn’t have walked away if you spent your three years here,” Candymaker said. “I’m not going to believe your self-pity any more than you would three weeks away from this place.”

“But it was going to be on my terms, C. Mine.”

“It always was,” Candymaker said. “He didn’t come from a rich family, you know that.” The figure laughed. “He didn’t beg me for a job…for a little excitement in the tear...for an opportunity to be shoved from the golden staircase laid out for him by his noble birthright…”

He was talking about Kalin. Of course he was. And Candymaker was right, Kalin was born into the spirit of a warrior, driven by fate right into his arms. The figure in the cell, on the other hand—asked for it. Wanted out of the safe, secure walled-life his parents had built for him.

He was a spolied rich kid who wanted fun and adventure. Kalin, though? Kalin was a student of survival.

“Okay,” The figure said. “Okay. When?”

“Two to five Ischarislan days. Whatever works best for them. Don’t ask how. They need you blind.” The silhouette nodded his head.

“No goodbyes?”

“Not even to the dear Warden,” Candymaker said.

“Kester Hewitt, 4558601 dash M,” The silhouette said. Candymaker turned back down the corridor he came from.

Kester Hewitt is dead, they both said to themselves as the silence in the block swallowed up Candymaker’s footsteps. 

In a little over 120 hours, Hendric Simmons’ self-imposed sabbatical would suddenly come to an end as he activated an IDOX-sanctioned gate for the first time in almost two years.

 

VESTINIA

Bailey’s escort, a skirtsuit in red with black knee-high boots, provided their means of propulsion. She’d made a point of avoiding using her own charge as fuel in the open, and as a diplomat, she was entitled not to subject herself to the whims of the native body—but apparently she wouldn’t escape the more extravagant displays of condensed-ethera conversion offered up by the VIP set, especially in this district of one of the most important cities on the planet.

“This is sooooo cool!” Her pantyhose cried out, clearly excited by the organic machinery at the bow of the miniature platform. “Are all the, um...boats?...like this?” The smart-looking short-brimmed red hat atop the skirtsuit swept back and forth.

“No, this airskiff is specifically used for dignitaries,” The skirtsuit replied. “As you can see around you, under usual circumstances, your human cargo is more than enough to generate efficient flight speed anywhere in the city, but for more…” Bailey smiled, waving her off.

“Don’t mince words over me,” Bailey said. “You already know it’s her first time, you may as well explain it.”

“For more...prudent riders?” Bailey rolled her eyes, shrugging. “...unable or unwilling to generate sufficient neural-emotive-rich fuel for conversion, we can provide self-contained power sources that can more than do the job for a small group of passengers.

“And they...they like it?” The pantyhose asked, obviously directing the question at the two humans at the bow. They were clad in eye-catching PVC, the man wearing translucent green chaps and a form-fitting button down shirt. Beneath it, a tight silvery a-shirt and a jockstrap that covered everything except his cock, rigid and threaded through a hole in the harness-like front. He grinned and nodded, making a point to look at Bailey’s feet instead of her face.

“They’re mammals. Most of them like nothing more...except perhaps eating, though one can tell that these two are particularly fond of their positions.” The clinical nature of the skirtsuit’s responses made it even tougher for Bailey not to react. 

“One can...tell,” Bailey said, taking a deep breath. Kalin’s suit chuckled.

The man’s partner beneath him had an underbust corset in shocking pink made of the same translucent PVC, her arms coated in shiny ciré gloves of the same color. Instead of a bottom, she wore equally pink translucent boots, laying on the plush 7-foot-round cushion and facing ahead, her legs open and inviting her partner.

“This is so much less embarrassing than just riding me over there, isn’t it, darling?” Kalin’s empty suit whispered to her. Bailey elbowed it as hard as she wanted, knowing she wasn’t going to hurt anything. She made a point at averting her gaze skyward, but it didn’t stop her from glancing at them from time to time as the three EAC nacelles hummed at the bow of the strange vehicle.

When it lifted off, Bailey could hear her pantyhose giggling. She’d gotten used to the Agoran branch of the Vestiniad, specifically the neutral zones where raw carnal displays were either muted or obscured. Despite what she’d already done with Kalin’s suit and her own pantyhose, she could feel her face flushing.

And maybe it was because of what she’d done that it was bothering her. She wanted to do the right thing for Kalin’s guest (and, okay, maybe she was being a little weak,) but now that was intertwined with what he’d gotten himself into...what he’d pulled her deeper into. She tried to keep up the dignity of a diplomat, but these Vestians knew how completely she could let go. Seeing and hearing a pair of humans rutting in front of her was...well, she was an empath. And of course they were attractive humans, not just trained for the job, but actually enjoying it.

She wiggled her ass against the cushion of her seat, mumbling through gritted teeth to Kalin’s suit. The pantyhose were gently playing with her, teasing subtly against her, no doubt feeling Bailey’s involuntary reaction to the couple.

“Tell her to knock it off so that I don’t have to make a scene,” Bailey hissed to the suit.

“You’re exceptionally tense for an expert diplomat,” The suit whispered back. She hated that it was his. She hated that she couldn’t control herself, couldn’t help but feel the joy at the bow of this sex-powered ‘aircraft’. That she had to meet with him again on these terms. That Candymaker cut her loose with him, forcing her to babysit Kalin and Nyxe at the same time. A sleeve curled around her waist and held her...and she hated it. For a moment.

Then the pantyhose stopped playing between her legs. Their motion slithered softly down her thighs. Massaged her calves instead. Her feet. She finally took a deep breath.

She put her head against his chest, and the suit mimicked the same gesture—a deep breath. Which was so stupid, really. Clothes don’t need to breathe.

“The, um—the architecture here is magnificent. Even by Ischarislan standards,” The pantyhose said. When no one else in the ship responded, the skirtsuit took its cue.

“Etheral Repulsors are responsible for maintaining the mezzanines,” It explained. “Much of the original man-made architecture remains at the surface level, and while it was expanded upon by the Governess…” The suit’s soft, informative voice drifted out in Bailey’s focus as the suit spoke to her again. With her ear to its jacket, it barely had to speak for her to hear it.

“We’ve been over this. You know I’m not him.” The suit whispered. “You know she’s not you. You know that we’re something else entirely, which is why you can relax here.” More breathing. Slower. She wrapped her arm around the suit jacket now, her eyes fluttering shut. “What you’re doing is for you, and your future—and his tangle in that...is yours to take advantage of. Because you deserve it. You deserve more from these...people,” The Vestian continued. “He’s fun because he’s reckless, but he’s reckless because he’s selfish,” Its soothing voice ran through her, and she could feel herself relaxing. Somehow it was more human than Kalin. More prescient.

 Bailey gripped harder for a moment, and took another deep breath, softening her body once more. “This is your anchorpoint, do you understand? The Vestiniad is. You have a staging point in this place. An advantage. We know it’s not your home—but it’s ours, and you took care of us. You brought her to life, and now you’ve brought us back.” Bailey sat up again, composing herself.

She didn’t need any more of this pep talk. She appreciated it, but there was time for gratitude later. The vestian was right, though. She deserved more from Candymaker. More from his staff, whatever her past meant. She laid her hand on the suit’s thigh, gently squeezing it. She simply looked at its collar and nodded, her lips stiff with a new determination.

The casual sex powering the craft, the skirtsuit explaining Nyxepolis to her nascent Vestian pantyhose, her own tension—it was all dissolving. It was giving way to a new focus now.

She deserved more, and she was stronger than Kalin, who she rescued. Who she was there to catch. She was stronger than Candymaker, who cast her to the wind to do more than baptize her in fire. Who cut her off to simplify his own strategies.

She was a diplomat between these two sparring worlds, and Candymaker’s detachment meant more than her having to figure things out on her own now. It meant moving the pieces on the board as she saw fit. It meant making things flow in a direction she determined. It meant considering what she wanted for the first time in a long, long time. 

Now they owed her. Now they were the borrowers.

She was free.

 

* * *

The air sparked when the gate alarm went off. A pair of white patent leather pants and a pale blue blouse stood over the landing gate’s console as white gloves danced over a keyboard.

“This...this is a patched axial breach!” Its voice panicked. The collar turned. “Sentinels, now!” Shining military boots marched forward through the arch of the gatehouse’s corridor, their mid-calf shafts taking up more than a third of its 2 meters.

“Reporting,” The boots spoke with a deep, silky voice.

“Be ready to pin whatever comes through that gate,” The blouse said. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t match its departure checksum.” The mass readings translated to 20 kilograms. One signal. Organic.

“Backup?” The boots asked. The blouse’s collar seemed to wrinkle for a moment. 20 kilograms? Not a returning vestian. Too small for most typical humans. Was it an...animal?

“It’s...small,” The blouse said. “I can’t lock the true origin, but…” The axial trace report wouldn’t be conclusive until after the breach was complete, but there was another anomolous detection in the ontonic spectrograph, and it didn’t…

The gate flashed open, and the left boot ratcheted forward to meet its sole with the manifestation of the center mass.

“ANTI-ETHERA! Watch ou—”

The noise was horrific—something between a pig squealing and the cawing screech of a large raptor. What it lacked in sharpened teeth that would strike fear into mammals, it made up for in a stretching, yawning maw that seemed to multiply in area as it met the boot.

It stretched upward. Outward. Fanning. Parachuting, billowing over the massive steel toe of the Sentinel-class vestian, like it was trying to swallow the thing whole. Except that it didn’t need to swallow a thing. Its mouth only needed a holding point, and its etheric digestion tract did what came naturally.

It pulled.

A woman’s scream came from the living boot, its mate pulling back as the sole of the first met the landing pad. The portal screamed shut as quickly as it opened, and when the crackling dissipated, the other Vestians bearing witness to this horror stood silent.

Like a creature of the forest watching the blazing light at the front of an armored gasoline-powered engine, or—better yet—an avian sucked into the vortex of a jet engine. The very phenomena of reality, yawning open to welcome them to the end. Swallowing them whole.

The first boot fell lifeless, and the creature grew as it swallowed more of the material up. Its digestion accelerated, a sort of sickly etheral halo developing around it as it divided the raw material up, binding to the ethera that once infused it.

“EVACUATE NOW!!!” The blouse screamed, charging for the archway. The half-digested boot’s mate whimpered, hopping back toward the gatehouse arch but clearly thrown off-balance from losing its other half.

Panic flooded the area outside the corridor, and it was twisted with a kind of horror Nyxepolis had never experienced, even when old New York broke into classes of animal panic and reactionary reprisal when humanity lost control of its own destiny. Lost it to ethera-based beings bound into nearly every piece of finery they’d crafted for vanity, modesty, status, plumage, and protection.

This, however, wasn’t a revolt awash with hedonism. It wasn’t a charge for maximum emotional reaction to feed the machinery of change. This was a terror their High Governess General had never allowed them to see. 

This wasn’t Agora. Here it was unthinkable for any human to hurt a Vestian.

But this beast wasn’t human, and it wasn’t interested in sex. It couldn’t be bound or strangled by things enchanted; not when those things ran on its own food. It didn’t see sentience, it didn’t see terror. It didn’t know empathy. It only saw food, and only knew hunger.

Like a constrictor working at hyper speed, it had completely swallowed the first boot. A mid-sized Sentinel-class Vestian had plenty of ethera, but it also had something else: plenty of mass. The creature’s skin took on a durable-looking black sheen, and a long strip of steel and gnashed grommets were unmistakably incorporated into its updated mouth, looking like a denser leatherette-and-metal hybrid of the beast that had bound into the gate. It leapt out the archway, and its first impulse was to chase the other half of its first meal. It was slower and more disoriented than the other scattering targets, awash with the magical glow that attracted the beast’s senses, sharply attuned to the quanta of ethera.

It leapt out the archway toward the staggering boot, but something else caught it first: the blouse. The blouse’s entire outfit leapt onto what appeared to be the back of the beast, relative to where its mouth was. It wrapped its sleeves around the narrowest point of the eyeless beast’s neck in a valiant effort, but the creature reared up, seemingly clenching its jaw at the same time and bulging against the sleeves without an issue.

When the growling thing threw itself forward, the blouse tried to tighten its grip, but through the creature’s thrashing its stitching popped. The blouse repelled itself from the floor using its own ethera, but the move was its undoing. The beast recovered its angle of attack and pounced forward, its steel and leather maw wide open.

A human being would recognize the scream of the outfit as another intelligent living being, something that understood pain. Something that feared death. A whole sleeve and half of the torso of the blouse were clamped between the jaws, and the rest struggled, half-inflated as it tried to fight the thing.

It was futile. Just as with the boot, the issue went beyond the tensile strength of the silky materials. The etheric energy that animated it was being pulled into the alien creature, literally draining the Vestian of life.

The next wave of defense approached the outer door, but after seeing their colleague, the single boot hopping weakly from the chamber, unable to speak from shock—they were much less than ready to receive an assailant they’d never imagined, let alone experienced.

This wasn’t an armed humanoid soldier, armed with inert objects and weapons they could turn against it. It wasn’t a creature that could be seduced or reasoned with. It was a hungry beast, and it was bigger and more resilient than when it came through the gate. Now it was devouring its second meal, an entire Vestian construct that sacrificed itself to save the other half of the Sentinel it called to its aide.

In seconds, its animal senses would quickly determine its next target.

 

* * *

“Our...destination has sharply shifted course and is moving at a high rate of speed toward the first mezzanine,” The skirtsuit said, turning to Bailey. It had suddenly interrupted its own curation of the Nyxepolis skyline for the benefit of her pantyhose. Bailey narrowed her eyes.

“What does that mean?” Bailey asked. “What’s going on?”

“There seems to be some kind of emergency...for now, I’m being told to keep our distance,” The skirt suit explained.

“Some emergency with his platform?” Bailey asked. The skirtsuit’s collar moved back and forth.

“No, the platform is fully functioning… But the party you’re meeting is currently dispatched under official direction to help handle the emergency.” Their small platform slowed in the air, and Bailey only became more frustrated. The skirtsuit seemed to notice this, and offered up more information. “The Adjutant to the Lieutenant in this district will meet us here.” 

“What is the emergency?”

 

* * *

“A threat of unknown origin,” Evisea said. The pants stood in front of Ava and me, explaining our sudden shift toward the center of the city. I find myself sneering at this.

“Threat of unknown origin? Last I knew, procedure was to strip the bad guys naked and turn their own guns against them.”

“The threat...is not humanoid,” A voice says behind me. I turn to see a familiar face in a short red satin dress, gleaming stockings and red mary janes. “And it responds to ethera with its appetite.”

“Elizabeth,” I say, smiling. “You look—”

“We don’t have time to catch up, Mister Adriksehn,” she cuts me off. This relationship goes way back, but she’s not even smiling. Something is seriously wrong,

“Lieutenant Governess, I didn’t expect you so quickly,” Evisea said. “I’ve only debriefed him on—” Elizabeth holds up a hand to the gigantic leather pants, looking me in the eye.

“We’re under attack, and my people are terrified. It’s a magic-eater, and it’s killing my citizens.”

“Are you kidding me?” I spit back at her, throwing my hands up in frustration. “Your entire multipath empire has no magic-resistant defense measures in your own capital city?” I shake my head. “Kind of fucky if you ask me, Bets.” Her eyes turn to rage for a moment, but she frowns and grabs my suitcoat.

“The transit was unmarked! The receipt-rejection protocol failed. Kalin, they patched an axial in from Panephin and sent this thing through somehow. It should have been summarily rejected from any IDOX registered breachway!” I gently break her away from me.

“Your ferals, though, and the physical armories—” 

“By the time we get ferals from the Catskills or those ancient weapons from Picatinny, I will have a magic-eater ten times as strong, running on the ethera of a hundred dead Vestians.”

“Guess who else runs on Ethera,” I say, holding up my Intecast. "Out of my hands unless a higher authority says otherwise," I tell her. This is about the time that Liz’s eyes glow with an unnatural violet hue, and I hear another voice.

“You will neutralize the threat,” Nyxe says through Elizabeth’s lips. “If you won’t do this to protect your new home, then you will do it because I have asked you to.” The other girls drop in deferential bows, and I wipe my mouth.

“You’re going to send me into battle in my first week?” I dare to say to this demi-goddess. "How did this happen, Governess?" Nyxe isn’t interested in verbally sparring with me this time. Elizabeth’s possessed body radiates ethereal fire to the extent that my Intecast’s charge indicator moves up another notch just by absorbing the excess around me.

“Between you and the wild beast SLAUGHTERING my children, you are the greater monster,” Nyxe growls. “Now do what you savor most, and destroy it.” 

Well. Nyxe wanted a barbarian for a reason. Convenient timing, but so be it.

“As the High Governess commands,” I say. There’s something about this that stinks of rot, but whether she or someone else has made this play just for me—there’s a body count on Vestinia, and it’s growing. If I don’t end up paying for it, something deep in my intuition makes me believe that Bailey will. “What's the location!?” I shout aloud, storming toward the forward of A-Deck as Evisea follows behind.

“The, the reception corridor you entered days ago,” The leather pants respond. “It's a quarter-kilometer ahead starboard, you can ride m—”

“Stay here,” I interrupt her, spreading my fingers as I begin levitating off the deck. I need to use all of my Intecast’s charge before I face this thing, and if it all goes into adrenaline and anabolics, my heart will basically burst. “You have the helm. Keep our distance from the tower.” The waist of the pants simply nod as I sail over the rail toward the reception station.

The panic is real. Vestians are charging out of the doorways, launching from the platforms and flying away as quickly as possible. I've never seen anything like it. I’m issuing one command after another to the Intecast through my Neuropause.

{Physiological|SuppressId:Nervous|Pain:90%;
{Parasymp|SuppressId:Nervous|Fear:100%;
{Parasymp|AugmentId:HR-mode|Aggressor;

Sensory/XSP/INTECAST_?Manual

MANUAL CHARGE CONVERSIONS ACTIVE.
CONVERSION UNITS 940 AT CURRENT METABOLIC USE
Form =
[VectorSystem:Dosage_duration] Ret = ChargeCost
_?
[Adren:Epinepherine4mL@dilution’B’_900s] 25U
[Endoc:Cortisol0.5mL@dilution’A’_300s] 15U
[Chol:Cortisone50mL@dilution’D’_10s] 25U
[Morph:Dextromethorphan40mL@dilution’A’_10s] 30U
[Cyclo:Atropine200μL@dilution’F’_1s] 35U
X
CHARGE CONVERSIONS EXECUTING.
_?

And since I have to burn another 810 units before I face this Ethera hungry thing, it’s time to get really ugly.

Sensory/XSP/Intecast_?AugClass

CLASSED AUGMENTATION CONVERSIONS ACTIVE.
CONVERSION UNITS 810 @ CURRENT METABOLIC USE
Form =
[Preset:Level_duration] Ret = ChargeCost
_?
[Durability:10_900s] 400U(!) ARE YOU SURE?
Y
[Speed:5_120s] 200U(!) ARE YOU SURE?
Y
[Focus:11_90s] 200U(!) ARE YOU SURE?
Y
Xall
CLASSED AUGMENTATIONS EXECUTING...3...2...1
_?

I’m gritting my teeth. It’s been a long time since I pumped this kind of dope into my body, but I need extreme measures, and there’s a heat of anticipation that comes with it. When this kind of chemical flood hits, the natural parts of my body know what time it is. Like a tinny, scraping feedback loop, my heart pumps harder as I sail to the platform.

When I land, I can feel the sweat taking hold. I impact on all fours, like a cat. When I stand, I throw off my inert suit jacket, tearing the top two buttons of my shirt open. I kick out of my shoes, ripping my dress socks off and feeling the tiled platform under my bare feet. I’m at the end of a long landing pad. The last of the Vestians in the corridor are running, sailing away in all directions as the beast hesitates, deciding which morsel it’s going to grab next.

It’s sated now, no longer starving. A little slower. A little lazier. More choosy about what to strike at next. It’s a strange mix of organic tissue enmeshed with polyurethane, leather, and fibers that it’s absorbed from its devoured victims; steel points on its fanged maw and brass tips on what I discern as claws.

When its snout arcs past me, I look at my Intecast, blinking on its final aqua indicator, illustrating the tiny amount of etheral charge that I’ve left for myself. I make a fist, centering a telekinetic focus on my own hand as if I’m holding some kind of psychic fireball.

It sees the glow in the spectrum it sees best—ethera. One more tasty treat. When it shifts its snout back again, it seems to realize that its dessert is not running scared like the other potential meals. No. I’m getting closer.

“Come on!” I shout, holding my hand out in front of me. I have no idea if this thing can hear me, but I watch it consider. Watch it move. 

Time slows for me as the peak function of my focus and speed augmentations take effect. The chemical fabrication in my bloodstream is making me breathe faster. I have no idea if this strange, hybridized creature half-composed of devoured Vestian fibers will bleed, but I am seething to know. It sniffs the air, and I grit my teeth. I see its maw opening as it charges, and I do the same.

Headlong, into the mouth of the beast.

Do what you savor most, she told me. Commanded me to kill her enemy. Called me the greater monster. Well...let’s not disappoint our goddess. 

The moment it goes for my hand, I release the last of my ethera, letting the thing have its snack. Its jaw snaps shut just as I pull my wrist back, and with my other balled fist, I sock the thing on the side of its head.

It whimpers. Something between a grunt and a whine. It shakes its head once and opens its maw wide again, facing me with a searing hiss. A warning cry. It’s only slightly disoriented after my first hit, but still surprised. It can’t smell me as well now, but it knows I’m there. It knows I struck it. I stalk to its side, and it turns to defend itself, facing me again just fine.

So, ethera isn’t the only thing it smells. The maw snaps shut and opens again slightly as it growls.

“Here,” I whisper. It snarls again, leaping forward, confident from its lack of opposition and its easy meals since its come to town. That's only my advantage as we head into the last 30 seconds of my focus charge; I don’t need it anymore. I know everything I need to know about this thing. I wrap my fingers around the top mandible at the front of its snout, pulling it wider as I pivot behind it. Its initial feint is to relax its jaw and let me pull, but when the quick contraction comes again to try to break loose from my grip, I’m ready for it.

My fingers clench harder, and I lock the thing’s strong, thick neck under my other arm as I pull, my fingertips clenching harder. HARDER.

It hisses again, its jaw wide open, rocking back and forth. It’s uncomfortable now. Its new opponent is not easy prey. I feel the rest of its body shiver in an attempt to shake me off, and I grip harder, constricting around its neck. Now it’s a slight squeal as I pull back on the mandible with my right hand, and it’s flexing, shuddering, trying to snap over and over again, but the structure of its neck doesn’t allow for it. Because of where I’m holding it, the lower mandible can’t snap up to reach the part of the jaw I’m holding with craned fingertips. I feel the wetness of my own blood as the steel teeth cut into my skin, and now I’m laughing. This fight is mine.

The greater monster. 

Nyxe isn’t wrong. This poor thing isn’t intelligent. It didn’t come here on its own. It doesn’t harbor anything against me. It doesn't know what vindictive means. It was sent here by some other party to feed. To disrupt.

Right now, I don’t care who’s responsible. Right now, I am not an agent. Not a diplomat. Not a smuggler. I am simply the better beast.

Pain or not, now that it’s drawn my blood, every chemical coursing through me multiplies my contempt. My violence. Now I will PUNISH this thing, not because I feel for the Vestians that it has devoured. Not because I feel some idiotic loyalty to Nyxe, carnal or economic. Because I want to know what its insides look like.

The greater monster. The Candyman’s Collector. The Arespolit Abattoir. You wanted to hire an uncivilized barbarian?

Now bear witness.

It whines a little, panicking as the rest of its body thrashes. It is caught, and even its foreclaw wrapping around my leg and digging into my quadricep will not make me loosen my grip. I only vice around its neck harder, pull its jaw back wider. The adrenaline is coursing through me now, the blunt force of my pharmaceutical augmentations taking hold of my muscle fibers. My focus charge is long gone. My speed will fade in another 10 seconds, but my durability and my epinephrine will be coursing through me long after I have pulled its body apart.

It grunts through its whining, and I laugh harder before I start mocking its sound. Wailing with this creature; tangled up with it as I savor my total superiority. It would be easy to blame the chemical cocktail I’ve pumped into my circulatory system, but Nyxe-simply-isn’t-wrong. 

Do what you savor most.

The inflection point of my reprisal. The moment my opposition realizes that their mistake goes beyond strategic criticality and into the mortal question. Even without the capacity for linguistic reflection, every complex animal knows this. Every predator knows it intimately.

My mocking wails crescendo into a gutteral howl, the apex of which is paired with my lats and upper right arm pulling back against its upper jaw with full force.

It’s enough for the jaw to yield beyond its mechanical limit. Even the creature’s etherally-augmented biology can’t withstand it. The whine is desperate now, a pathetic screech behind the wet SNAP of its ruined upper mandible.

There are Vestians watching now from a distance. My own mobile platform has closed to a distance of 100m, contrary to my directions to Evisea. They’re watching me. They’re watching this fight become a rout. They’re watching me enjoy it.

As the creature thrashes like mad, I contemplate its strange, organic-looking maw—broken open now. I release the bloody digits of my right hand. I take its foreclaw from my bleeding thigh and twist it off while it renews its struggle to escape, fueled by raw survival instinct.

Its attitude has shifted entirely as I keep twisting the brass-tipped claw backward, threatening to snap it like the worthless jaw it can no longer close. 

There isn't a predator before me anymore. It, too, recognizes the greater monster. I flip the creature onto its back—easily a hundred kilos if my biometrics are reading right—and clench my fingertips like a talon. The tough, leatherette skin that seems to have taken over most of its carapace ends in a scaly boundary, itself giving way to a fleshy, yellow-white patch at the center of its underside.

Predators understand vulnerabilities. Eyes. Joints. Weak points in the flesh. I have yet to see the blood of this magic eater, but a fluttering, fast-pumping lump of soft, contracting scales tell me what I need to know.

It has a heart...for the moment.

To pierce it with speed would have been more merciful, but my speed charge is gone. Only my durability and my strength remain. I bury my locked fingertips deeper and deeper into its flesh, and now there is no more hissing. No more snarling. No more growling. Only a shriek, a high-frequency whine bouncing off the landing pad where I made my attack, heard by every Vestian watching within a half-kilometer.

Like a rabbit crying to the night, begging the coyote to finish the job it started. I dig deeper into the fleshy patch. Deeper. Feeling the edge of what I imagine to be the cognate of a rib cage. When it finally gives way, it does so like the skin of a balloon—stretched thin and snapping everywhere at once. My hand is plunged into the soaking bowels of this creature, and I feel the organ I was searching for. Pounding in desperation. Straining to give this creature the last shred of energy it could use to crawl away and seek mercy. I clench.

I can hear the crowd reacting now. Mostly shock, but some vengeful encouragement peppered into the emotion. The beast’s innards are bifurcated, its vital systems pushed beyond any reasonable nervous demand. My jaw is clenched with tension, and my eyes are fixed skyward. I am still on an unnatural, predatory high. For longer than I need, I am still the greater monster. I shift my Intecast’s disposition as the slow, final drawing sound of this creature winds down.

I manage to reclaim enough ethera from the dying thing to charge myself through aqua-3, and my first green indicator blinks slowly. The crowd’s shock slowly gives way to cheering, which I have no interest in responding to.

I slowly withdraw my hand from the limp beast’s most critical cavity, covered in a blue-violet gel. It has no glow. Every etheral charge has already been withdrawn from it, sucked into my own inhuman hybrid maw of mammal and machine. I take deep breaths now, releasing my charges manually once more, trying to reassert my civilized self.

Whatever that means.

Through the growing roar of the audience, the pounding of my own heartbeat gives way to other voices. Familiar. Soft.

“Are...are you okay, Kalin?” It’s Elizabeth, calling from the direction of my platform. At the same time, I can feel footsteps approaching on the landing pad, and when I look up, I see another familiar face. 

It’s Bailey. She’s keeping her distance, giving me a pained smile.

“He’s fine,” Bailey says. “There’s no keeping you out of trouble, is there?” I see my suit behind her. On the other side, an adjutant. A blonde with sparkling blue eyes and a tight grey pantsuit. Elizabeth’s, judging by the insignia.

“You keep...snatching me from its jaws,” I grunt, finally sitting up. “What happened to getting to Agora without you?” I ask.

“Things change,” Bailey says, motioning to the dead creature beside me. “Cute pet. Where’d you find him?” Fucking Bailey. The tension is finally draining a little as I sneer, shaking my head.

“Liz said it came from an axial portal. Some kind of signal hijack,” I say. Bailey takes a deep breath.

“Exceptional timing that you were here to stop it,” She says, helping me up by the hand not covered in ethera-drained blood. I don’t need to say a word to tell her that I agree. By now, Elizabeth has hovered to the pad, taking in the finer details of my kill. A couple of her agents flank her.

“You saved lives here today,” Elizabeth says, “Nyxepolis thanks you.” The stilted speaking might be acting, but it’s not disingenuous. We have an audience. “Counsellor Bridgman,” Elizabeth nods. “Sorry to have diverted your envoy.” Bailey smiles.

Skaj. The last time I saw both of these women together, we were drinking buddies. It’s a fucked kind of dance step, even for fate. 

“Miss Cross explained everything, Lieutenant Governess,” Bailey responds. “I’m glad we were able to avert a bigger tragedy.”

It’s so unnatural to see them speaking in formal etiquette given everything we know about each other, but the public facing act is in the nature of diplomacy. Elizabeth is trying to stare me down, but I won’t meet her eyes. A Copician and a Kelysnethite. Way too many people who can read deeply into a look are standing around me right now.

“I’m happy that Kalin was so anxious to come to our aid,” Elizabeth said. After what happened just before my fight, now I really won’t look at her. “I’d like to thank you both in a more fitting setting. Perhaps I’ll join you both for dinner on the platform...in a week, perhaps, when everything’s arranged?”

On the platform? I assume Bailey knows more about my resource base here than she’s seen, which means her plans for me go deeper than this.

“We’ll do our best to accommodate,” Bailey replied. “I’m sure you’ll want a report from Mr. Adriksehn once he recovers?” She says, looking at me. 

Elizabeth’s face gets terse. Her voice booms as she addresses the crowd. “An attack like this is unprecedented, but there will be time for justice after we mourn the dead,” Her eyes jump at the beings in the crowd, all looking on. “But whoever might be responsible, rest assured that your Lieutenant Governess and our Governess General will press on our associates in the charter, find our enemies and make them PAY for the lives lost today.”

I know what’s coming. I’m still looking down, but I can feel her close to me. Practically displaying me.

“A visitor, a traveller, a xenoskipper not only of another path, but a FREE MAN of Vestinia in accordance with the wisdom of our Governess General, has come to your rescue today.” 

For fuck’s sake. She’s going to do it.

“His name is Kalin Adriksehn, and he has risked his flesh to stop a danger that, to my own shame, we were otherwise ill-prepared to receive. Thanks to our Governess and her judgement of character—her foresight in knowing the spirit of this uncalled guardian—it is to our great fortune to have him here today. Though he is a man, he is a free man...and one we owe ourselves to today.”

So much for laying low. So much for attracting the subversives. Now my mobile platform is going to be flooded with high society. With VIPs. With things I didn’t want to have to handle in my exile here. Through the cheers of the crowd, I give a hard smile, looking up to at least acknowledge them.

This is too much for me, and the three of us are all going to have a LONG talk about it later.

 “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to address my people,” Elizabeth says. I finally meet her eyes and nod.

“Whatever you need, Lieutenant.” Her smile doesn’t tell me anything else, and I’m only left wondering what my look has told her. She heads out to the gathered Vestians and humans, joined by her agents.

“I’ll remain here to assist the Lieutenant’s investigation and documentation,” Miss Cross says to Bailey and I. “You and your party are free to join Mister Adriksehn now, Counsellor Bridgman. I take it you’ll no longer need the skiff.”

“No, Miss Cross, we’ll manage. Thanks.” Bailey nods politely, shaking the blond’s hand. As she walks away, Bailey turns back to me. “You have enough charge to get to the platform?” I nod, looking at my living suit accompanying Bailey. I wonder if it’s been with her the entire time, how much it’s gleaned since I was in the Syntyche slammer.

“How’ve you been, slim?” I ask it.

“Better knowing you haven’t been wearing me lately, from the looks of things.” He answers. “You look like you’re missing some pieces there.”

When we look down to the far end of the pad, the suit coat is actually hovering in the air above the socks and shoes. They walk over toward us, and no longer being cancelled by my Intecast, it speaks for the first time.

“I feel like...part of me is numb,” The nascent animate says, lifting a sleeve toward me. “Like you have the rest of me.”

“You don’t want to feel the rest of this until we wash...you,” I say, pulling at my shirt a little. “And patch up your slacks. Welcome to the world.”

“Thanks for, um...keeping part of me out of it. Looks messy.” Bailey reaches down and buttons the coat, patting its chest.

“With him?” She asks. “Get used to it.”