The Fourteenth Chapter
The higher an eater was in grade the more his face began to take on an animal like quality, by grade five their teeth had fallen out and were replaced by sharp incisors and canines. In the beginning it was easier to think of my husband and his tribe of murderous exiles and convicts as a pack of feral dogs. This way, I was never disappointed when they committed acts which displeased me. – Nott
From her room in the medical ward, Fawn watched in disgust as Deicide and his monster ran through the rebellious pack; like a thresher plowing through acres of paper dolls, bodies were relegated to indiscriminate red mounds, buildings in their path crumbled or exploded like castles of sand struck by a giant’s boot. The ghastly dramatics she had witnessed in her deep slumber reminded her of the creature she was watching on the display at the foot of her bed. Her brother Alpha was squeezed into bed next to her, leaning against the bedrail, mouth open, added with his antlers, he looked like a deer that was tied to the grill of a pickup. He snapped awake as the automatic food dispensing unit lowered a tray from the ceiling, smacking his lips and groaning a hello he began to help himself. Fawn sniffed and folded her arms, having lost her appetite.
“That’s the Captain?” Fawn said, motioning to the screen.
Alpha squinted at the display as he peeled an orange. “Yeah, pretty old footage though,” he said.
“What the fuck did they do to deserve that?” she said.
“Lord Deicide steps in when the terrestrials are tough to crack, doesn’t like to spend too much time on one target,” he said. The door slid open and a female doctor whom Fawn had seen many times before stepped in.
“Hello Ms. Dearborne,” she said. “Lieutenant.” Alpha waved sheepishly.
“Geez. Is everyone assigned a personal doctor?” Fawn said.
“I’m one of the doctors assigned for your type,” she said.
“Oh. And what type is that?” Fawn said.
“Those that possess characteristics of an Intrinsic, a natural, like your brother,” she said
“Now that IS true,” Alpha said matter-of-factly, popping an orange slice into his mouth. Fawn shot him a narrow eyed glare before the woman continued.
“Well, what do I have?” Fawn said.
“Vestige poisoning, though we’re not sure how you came in contact with it. Has she been fitted for a suit yet?” she said.
“Nah, Doc. She hasn’t even finished the training courses,” Alpha said.
“Well it’s as common as the cold, just take your prescriptions and you’ll be fine, other than a few restless nights, perhaps some night sweats,” she said.
“Thanks,” Fawn said, letting the doctor leave the room before turning to Alpha. “Is it really that common?” Fawn said.
“All the time. Fever, a few nightmares, you’re good as new in a couple of days,” he said.
“The woman’s clothes in your apartment belong to her, huh?” she said.
Alpha continued munching the orange. “Yep,” he said, red faced.
“Hmm,” she said. “A doctor.” Proud that her younger brother had elevated his tastes beyond the brainless manikins he usually pursued.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” she said.
Within the next few days Fawn was fine, physically, though she was still wary of entering a force whose in-house news anchors treated blatant genocide like a sportscast. Fawn could admit to herself that she was a bit of a brute, but her callousness had come from being a lifelong soldier involved with actual combat, but many of the veterans she met seemed to be professional murderers, all pretending to be something else. On board the Aeolipile, soldiers were their hobbies, a civilian spouse or friends would never question what was done at the job, and it was rude to ask someone about violence they were involved in and the quickest way to determine if someone was of a lower class. Internal bloodshed was only discussed amongst the enlisted and even then it was not done so in public.
She had wanted to confront her brother about the choice he had made, but every time they were together he seemed to drone on about some new-fangled gadget that was impossible for him to live without. Rodela was an even harder case; she yearned to be in the very crux of Deicide’s wet work, no matter the danger. Perhaps this was what Deicide truly wanted, he knew no one could get behind his dream, but people could always be trusted to chase their own selfish desires. As cheap as a soul was in this place, people were still eager to sell. The Aeolipile gave her citizens whatever they wanted, as long as they conformed to the rigid policy and abandoned their cultures. Medical treatments were put into place to alter the anatomy and genetics of the populace, explaining to Fawn why certain circles had such a similar look. People from civilizations light years apart had been genetically altered to give them a more humanoid appearance.
After she was off bed rest, Fawn was free to complete her indoctrination course, which was a militarized tour of the Aeolipile, brief explanations of the science behind the ship and its equipment. The instructors seemed to hide little from them, boldly informing their students of failed Districts thrust into the Fringes. Fawn wondered when she would be issued this invisible cloak of righteousness everyone seemed to be donning; the rebels were at least respected because of their willingness to fight back, anyone else who could not escape the Fringes were seen as refuse deserving of their fate. She fought the urge to speak her mind, knowing Alpha’s rank was not sufficient to shield him from her transgressions. So she continued to play her role coolly, trying not to show signs of aversion during the long lectures.
Presently, Fawn was dressed out in an empty Skid, not yet filled with the inert vestige material. Thrown over it was the uniform of a cadet, how familiar this position was to her, she wondered what information they had gathered about her from the chip in her neck that acted as her original service record in the Arbaronian army. She tugged at the collar of the Skid and looked around to see if anyone noticed her moving about. She squirmed as if it was tight around her neck, a noose held by an imprudent hand.
“We alright down there Dearborne?” Hellmouth said; her hands were clasp behind her back, her lips curled into a snarl that put her gold teeth on display. Rodela was right, Hellmouth did see everything.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Fawn said, wondering how someone of such high rank knew her name already. Then immediately she thought of her brother’s cult-like following amongst the female and even some male civilians, it seems she would never be a common citizen. Behind Hellmouth was Baby Sister, Rodela and a few other female instructors. Fawn was told earlier that each department had their own separate training standards, Hellmouth preferred to train males and females separately, she felt that it enabled her instructors to be harder on them both. It was even said that Hellmouth wanted to divide them up further by sexual orientation, but divisions of one gay man and one lesbian woman would just be silly, besides they did not have enough instructors to accommodate such small divisions as the Weavers did.
This was the obligatory pep talk that every military had upon entrance. She listened to the hard faced woman drone on about pride and respect; it was good to know that bullshit had the same smell on the other side of the universe. Then she backed away and let her staff divide their classes for the morning’s lesson.
Fawn’s class was taken into a training area, modeled after an existing District; it was about a tenth of the actual size of a real District and was populated with robotic citizens and modest vehicle traffic. They were given a half hour to wander about, and get to know the terrain a bit before they were corralled back to the city’s edge for instructions. All of the women jumped as their Skids were filled with inert vestige, turning their gray Skids black. They began to take off their uniforms exposing the snug fitting Skids. Fawn was pleased with the feel, it was light and easy to move around in, but she felt naked without any cordons hanging from her waist as the veterans had. Then their instructors activated the suits and Fawn felt a cluster of needles enter at equal intervals along her spine. She became worried as she thought her lungs were on the verge of collapse, then she felt crisp air forced into them. More panic still, as a goop inside her nostrils solidified, she could still breathe through her nose and mouth, but it came with much difficulty. And so she allowed the mechanism to do its work, the air felt fresher somehow strained through this vestige, even cleaner than air on the sterile medical decks.
“We got a leak!” one instructor said.
A woman began to scream and clutch at her arms before falling over. Every muscle in her body was trying to contract at once, and her teeth were clamped down hard. Bored looking medics quickly injected her with a serum to relax her locked muscles and wrestled her body flush against the ground. Fawn and the other students were shocked; she wondered what exactly was included in this miracle serum.
“Voices! They won’t stop!” the woman said. The medics gave her another injection that stopped her muscles from seizing then one held her jaws open as another pushed in a mouth guard.
“Alright kids, back on me. This is why we don’t tell new students about their plugs. Don’t fuck with them, that’s the techs job. Now breathe,” Baby Sister said. She walked in between the rows of women looking for any signs of distress or panic.
“Don’t freak out. If you’re having problems call a training time out. Just like in boot camp ladies,” Baby Sister said, coming to Fawn. The little woman stood there wearing a haughty mask, expecting Fawn to fall out. This new sensation was strange, but Fawn handled it reasonably, they had not been asked to breathe water. Fawn had seen people breathe through holes in their throat; breathing through the plug system on their backs actually seemed more appealing. She quickly shot her eyes downward to meet Baby Sister’s, who was still watching her, standing on her toes with a smirk and scratches from their last battle on her face.
“Everybody okay?” the lead instructor said. All of the students poked a thumb in the air.
“Alright, now I’m gonna give you something good,” she said. At first Fawn felt the familiar rush return, but this was laced with something new. As the chemical soup began to flood her bloodstream Fawn recognized the adrenaline, but it had brought some friends. Suddenly she became aware of the texture of her tongue; she rolled it around where it came into contact with her saliva glands, which began to flood her mouth with a bitter taste. She thought about letting this loch of spittle pour to the deck, but the instructor interjected.
“Drink it down,” she said. And Fawn swallowed the goop.
“Congratulations, you have just converted vestige fluid into a usable substance. Now it’ll go down to your gut and in a few minutes everybody’s gonna feel nice,” she said. She was correct, Fawn felt as though she was a super heroine, a national treasure, a symbol of goodness and sexy, no one could convince her otherwise. She clenched her fists and stirred on her feet, as did the woman next to her.
“Now, you’ll be chasing Sergeant Rodela Adarga throughout the city. I know you all think you’re badasses right now, but she holds the female land speed record and she’s a Grade Five,” she said. Rodela hopped up and down a few times which drew Fawn’s eyes to a unique symbol on Rodela’s cordon loops that no one else had, Fawn assumed it was the speed record. Rodela took off casually, but even at that speed she was like a blur.
“Faceplates down,” the instructor said. Silently the black face shield slid over Fawn’s eyes, inside a HUD linked to the nanomachine implants in her eyes. She could see Rodela already streaking down the street. What looked to be flare and dressing on the HUD was actually the onboard computer letting the user know where the target had been moments before, this system was a much more advanced HUD than what Fawn was used too.
They were released into the city like hounds turned on the scent of a fugitive. The euphoric sensation was intensified the faster Fawn moved; she dashed ahead, passed machine-controlled sedans and trucks. Her fellow students were all around, leaping from the roofs of cars and swinging on light poles, as she leaped through a crowded intersection. Fawn had cleared most of the cross traffic when a truck was in danger of clipping her, immediately she rolled and sprung upward with a single hand, launching her in the middle of the next block. She could see Rodela ahead, and glided along the wet streets.
A foolish student high on life plowed ahead of the pack and into an intersection without looking and was flattened by a supply truck. With a quick look back, Fawn saw the woman was muscling the truck aside, dumping it into oncoming traffic. She surged ahead; her HUD told her she was averaging a speed of forty-five miles per hour. Then she saw Rodela make an abrupt stop, nearly standing still as Fawn whizzed past.
“The fuck?” Fawn said, wondering how many scientific laws Rodela had just broken. Fawn slowed down and found a light pole to help her switch directions. She braced for the pain in her left arm, but none came, and then shot up the street towards Rodela and the oncoming horde. The Risk Eater was standing there waiting for the recruits to get closer, then she seemed to fall sideways into an alley. The others rushed after; some had already discovered that ceilings and floors did not exist when one had vestige to burn.
Fawn tried to jockey her way to the front, and then noticed a message from their instructor in her HUD, a stubby little avatar popped into the corner of her vision and began to explain to her the fineries of the dogbox. Fawn nodded as the information was spat to her in a rapid manner, the chemicals running through her body had her mind running at peak performance. She curled in a ball in mid-air and fell laterally onto the brick wall next to her. Then she leaped onto the roof on the other side of the alley, here she was able to run without being crowded by the pack. Farther along Rodela was running along a railing backwards to taunt them, still moving faster than her pursuers could handle. Anyone could run at high speeds with the Skid, but very few had the courage and mental focus to make ninety degree turns and leap from buildings without looking. Rodela twisted and vaulted through the air as if she had access to a safety net at all times, there was no hesitation or apprehension in any of her movements.
Many of the pack that had been trailing at the start were gone, sidelined by injury, or inversion sickness; in a few hours they would be complaining to the nurses that their feet did not touch the floor, disoriented by the after effects of manipulating sovereignty. Rodela weaved in and out of them, as they tried to grab the flag which hung from her belt. Fawn hopped over a woman that had vomited in her facemask, it splashed the ground violently as it was ejected from the gills at the back of suit. As the two women reached the mouth of the alley Fawn watched as Rodela ran blindly into traffic.
Fawn could feel that she was within Rodela’s killbox, before she could stop herself she too was into the street, she could feel the cars barreling down on her. Then as she looked to her right at the oncoming cars, she saw a vehicle she could not avoid, driven by no one and carrying no passengers. Already preparing to lose her leg Fawn winced just as her HUD began to react with the state of her body, the rest of her world darkened except for what was in the women’s immediate vicinity. There was only Rodela, the rabbit she was following into this murky hole. Her movements began to mimic Rodela’s as she followed her up the side of a building. Fawn saw her target’s feet stutter and then launched herself out into the open air. Fawn was late anticipating the maneuver and she flew off the side of a building and into the office of a high rise across the street.
The impact had torn through several desks and planted Fawn inside the warped doors of a conventional elevator. There was little pain, only the jarring feeling when she slammed into the wall; her Skid remained intact, even with the glass she had shattered on her way in. As she pried herself from the doors she was greeted by Rodela.
“Day One,” Rodela said, holding out her hand.
“Fun stuff,” Fawn said, taking Rodela’s help
“You hurt?” Rodela said.
“Nah,” Fawn said, brushing glass and rubble from her shoulders.
“Dirtbag,” Rodela said. “The Skid will protect you, don’t fear the pain.”
“How come they didn’t just let us run around on some planet?” Fawn said.
“They have the enlisted infantry do that. They want to monitor Intrinsics closely,” Rodela said.
“Wait up,” Fawn said. “One more thing, how fast can you run?”
“I run out of vestige before my speed plateaus,” Rodela said. “I can’t convert it fast enough.”
“Does everyone have to convert it?” Fawn said.
“Technically no one does, but its poison to everyone accept Deicide,” Rodela said. “You can take it without converting it, but it’ll kill you eventually.”
When they arrived at the main entrance to the city they saw more heavy brass gathered with the instructors and multiple divisions. Fawn quickly got into ranks with the other women, no one had been gravely injured and many had smiles on their faces, even the woman who had puked into her faceplate. They swapped stories until Hellmouth turned to their lead instructor and cleared her throat; it was all she had to do command silence. Their lead instructor quickly placed the divisions at attention.
“Attention on deck!” she said.
Walking from the rear of the divisions was a figure wrapped in a strange black cloak; the fabric looked soaked and seemed to be shifting slightly all over his person. From what could be seen where the cloak was parted was the working uniform of an officer, but it was a slightly different cut. Hellmouth stepped aside a little as he turned toward the divisions, all of the other officers seemed to be keeping their distance as sign of respect, but Hellmouth was unusually close. Being in the first rank, Fawn could see his face up close, underneath the cuts and nicks was the face of a man who looked as though he was starting graduate school, not a warlord. From the way everyone spoke of him, Fawn assumed he was twelve feet tall and produced lightning from his penis. She could tell he was a manufactured killer, as his eyes did not fit his demeanor. In another life, perhaps secretly in this one, he would have been a philosopher; Fawn took him for a man that had spent most of his life gazing up at the heavens, wondering why. Deicide looked around as if he expected someone to interrupt him.
“At ease everyone,” Deicide said. “No awards to give out?” His voice seemed to be amplified by some unseen device, perhaps it was his true voice, Fawn could not tell.
“Not today,” Hellmouth said; lacking the cowed tone displayed by Deicide’s other ranking subordinates; she exuded an unmistakable air of familiarity with the noble, like a mother speaking to her adult son. Many of the students were caught off guard, believing Hellmouth was unable to say a word without yelling it.
“Hmm. Welcome aboard everyone. I’m sorry it took so long for us to have this little talk. Really, I’d rather be here than fighting off the Rebels,” Deicide said.
“Not me!” Baby Sister said, wrenching loose a few laughs. Fawn had grown to detest the sound of Baby Sister’s scratchy voice and was further annoyed that she was allowed to interrupt someone so important.
“The rest of us have lives, Baby Sis,” Deicide said, and then continued on.
“What I wanted to tell you all is that you made the right choice. Eventually there will be no place that the Aeolipile is not. No army that is not my own. You are the next generation of soldiers who will guard the lives of those within this ship. Only with your help will we be able to cross the great divide and avoid the terror that fate has unleashed upon us,” Deicide said, as he looked on the ranks of women.
“Now, who has questions?” Deicide said. Fawn was surprised again that his smile seemed genuine, his diamond eyes smiled when his mouth did, which somehow made her dislike him even more. How could this man be the devil she had seen tearing apart that city earlier?
“The Grinders got you shook?” Deicide said. Thankfully someone raised their hand, even though they just asked him a softball question.
“When do we get paid, sir?” a woman said.
“After first quarter, you all should receive funds directly to your accounts. I don’t know what you’re going to do with money though. Soldiers don’t need money. When’s the last time you paid for something Baby Sis?” Deicide said.
“Fuck if I know,” Baby Sister said.
“How about you, Sergeant Adarga?” Deicide said. Rodela shook her head, seemingly embarrassed that she was called on. “Don’t know, sir,” Rodela said.
“Save your money for a summer home or a condo for your flings,” Deicide said.
“Oh yeah,” Baby Sister said.
“Any more? Yes?” Deicide said.
“Yeah, I’m guessing we can’t use our blood money to buy back those planets you destroyed?” Fawn said. She came out of a parade rest just as Hellmouth was charging her. Fawn slipped passed her first punch, but could not avoid the hook that followed, the blow snapped her head to the right and then she was grabbed by a pair of instructors. As Deicide approached her she grinned, blood filled the spaces between her teeth. Then he pushed his face close to her own, and blew an icy vapor into her face. She watched as he took notice of her hair and brushed the pink strays out of her eyes. He began to nod when his eyes found her identification number on the side of her neck.
“Lock her in my wife’s study,” Deicide said, this time he grinned the smile of a wolf god. Fawn’s pleasant disposition turned to a brooding scowl and she watched as Hellmouth stepped to him to quietly protest.
“I’ll straighten her out; just have her sent to the brig,” Hellmouth said.
“Am I the Captain or not Shay?” Deicide said; his eyes seemed to be searching for something in her face. Hellmouth looked hurt; she shook her head at his implied accusation, it was she who had been in charge during his absence, though she did not wish to have the responsibility. Fawn noted the disagreement and guessed that Hellmouth was the man’s conscience, at least in terms of his treatment of women.
Hellmouth came closer to Deicide so only he could hear. “Of course you’re the Captain. I’m only trying to guide you. Why are you angry at me?” Hellmouth said, pausing. “Nott was my friend too,” she said; waving the Risk Eaters away that had a hold on Fawn. As they dragged her between the columns of unqualified cadets, Fawn laughed.
“Well, at least your fucking breath doesn’t stink,” Fawn said.