Aurelia, Angélique
rating: +25+x

My name is Aurelia Lemoyne. I am 23 years old. I am an agent of the Order of the Cog's Teeth. I am Golden.

I look out my window, and see the Earth below. The view is unremarkable, like seeing the waves from the prow of a cargo ship. It's far from my first time in space, after all. Space travel first became consistent and reliable in the 2050s, and 250 years of refinement have certainly made their marks. Even inter-system travel has been codified and simplified to the point of triviality - not that I understand it. I don't get much of space travel. If it doesn't breathe air and burn gas, it doesn't make sense to me. I shift my focus from the window to the workbench in front of me.

They tell me that I am an instrument. They say that I am a vessel of the Lord's will, that I am His instrument of vengeance. I do not know how much of this I believe. They tell me that I will be perfect, in His service. This, I know to be true. Asterius, my Overseer, has seen fit to make me perfect in their service. I will not falter, and I will not fail.

The choir from down the hall echoes in my ears, deep and sonorous voices interspersed with jets of steam and grinding gears like the dreams of a mechanical god. The melody is comforting, one I have heard many times before, and is accompanied by the drum-beats of steam engines and percussion claps of power hammers. It sings of strife and of certainty, of steel and of fire. Song in my chest, I turn to my work.

I am taken back to the Venerable. Few cargo ships still sailed the Terran seas, but of those that did, the Venerable was among the largest and oldest. The thought crosses my mind: Home. Callisto…? The thoughts are banished just as quickly. Asterius told me not to dwell on those times. It would do me well to listen.

Before me on the workbench lies my lifeline. It is always failing, in some new way each time, but I am skilled enough to keep it running despite this. It thrums with power, as I cannot afford to let it calm itself for any longer than it needs to be. Who could think a beryllium-bronze box could be so important? I gingerly remove the outer casing while I brush away the curtains of cabling still connecting this box to my body, exposing the circuitry inside. My circuitry. I take a deep breath, and flick the off switch.

I am behind the controls of a small, stealthy helicopter. We weave between skyscraper spires and landing ports, in an attempt to draw less attention to ourselves, despite our somewhat conspicuous vehicle. Lorelai prays in the passenger bay. A massive skyscraper looms ahead, marked as a central legal office on this planet. I do not remember which. The cargo hold hisses open, and Lorelai jumps out. This is the last I see of her for the time being.

Beneath the copper-gold environmental exclusion plate, the miniature cities of resistors, capacitors, and microchips blink off. Peristaltic pumps for air and medication slowly spin down and cut out. The buzzing in my head grows louder, but I focus. I lift the circuit board free from its home, exposing it once more to the searing light and cold air of the workspace.

The executive helipad is open. I find this convenient. As the machine touches down, a bewildered security guard approaches my door. I do not bother to look as I power on my stun baton. He does not bleed on my robes. I walk quickly, with purpose, past him - to walk any other way is to waste energy, and more importantly, time.

I identify the problem. A shunt resistor, burned out from an overcurrent. No doubt in attempt to regulate the last cascade-failure. At least it hadn't taken more of the board with it. A miniature soldering iron slides out of my left hand, with a metallic whirr. Quickly, the shunt is removed and replaced. I power on the device once again, feeling the pressure in my head dissipate with the bitter syrup of morphine reintroduced to my system.

I pull the device from beneath my robes. Most would feel a sense of dread, with a high-powered explosive tucked so close to their body. I do not. I made it, and I do not make mistakes. I do not make mistakes. I do not make mistakes. The pressure in my head mounts. I ignore it, and take the next steps towards the gravitic support pylons.

The life-support system is closed once more, returning to its sterile origins. Where once my circuits were, now contains only a beryllium-bronze outer layer, pockmarked with carved sigils and ellipses. The soldering iron retracts, with a miniature chisel there to take its place. I remember the installation of the augment — before my whole arm was replaced, and my tools rested in meat. Meat. The word disgusts me. I quickly slot the box into its proper place in my chest.

I place the magnetic satchel on the support beam. Centralizing a gravitic support network in one easily-accessible location is a fool's errand. It's a wonder why it's even allowed at all, but out here it's all about the money. Maybe this will teach them. I set the timer, and walk away. I do not make mistakes. The pressure is greater still.

I scrape away at the golden metal, a glitter-spray of lustrous dust is kicked into the air, coating my respirator and workstation. The room is already coated in this golden dust. A little more can't hurt. A new ellipse is formed under my chisel - one of many. It would do well to have company. I run my finger along the textured surface. It barely registers as a sensation - nerve damage seems to be progressing. I'll have to worry about that soon.

The procedure is simple. I've done it a thousand times - break the glass ampoule, watch the liquids mix. Punch in the access code. 8339. Set the timer. 3 minutes, as is standard practice. Any industrial demolitionist could do this in their sleep. This is simply salvage. I am doing what needs to be done. I do not make mistakes. Make your way to the cockpit. Take off, and do not look back.

I rise from my workbench — nothing else needs attending to, for now. Beyond my cramped quarters lies the storeroom, and that is where I decide to go. My head threatens to scrape the low ceiling of the ship's corridors as I make my way through the bulkheads to the storage room. Eventually I emerge into the dim cargo hold, lit only by a workbench light in the far corner and a series of low power industrial wall-lights. Lorelai sits, twitching, at the workbench, rewiring her Angel Wings. The gravitic dampener, essential for their slow-fall effect, had been damaged in exfil — her extraction had doubtless been more violent than mine. The blood smeared onto the silver plating fills the engraving on the surface, rivulets of blood have already dribbled into the grooves, "Argentum Alis" spoken silently in deep crimson. I consider saying something to her - she is doubtless upset about the last mission - but I think better of it, and move past her, deeper into the cargo hold.

Something is wrong. Instantly, I am aware of the pure silence in this place. Even in the storeroom, it's possible to hear the choir from down the hall. I pull up the field repairs checklist on my watch, and make my way through the outlined steps. First things first - biomonitor indicates my bio-markers as nominal. As nominal as they can be these days, at least. Power flux is normal, save some leakage in the cranial implants, but that too is expected. Better to just initiate a system restart on the audio suite. As soon as the restart is intiated, a buzzing grows louder and louder in my head. Whenever the compensation integrated into the audio suite goes down, the power leakage from the other augmentation can produce phantom sensations in other areas of the brain. At least this time it's not a migraine. Once the audio suite is back online, the buzzing quickly fades out, and is replaced by the soothing melody of the choir once more.

I awake from the operating table. The soothing warmth of morphine is draining from me - fast, replaced by a screaming pain inside my skull. This, though, is expected. I was promised a new mind-impulse unit, something to allow me to connect to my helicopter and fly it more effectively. I look at my hands. No ports, not even an indication of any mind-impulse unit or something even remotely similar. I look at Asterius. They hold a holo-control in their metallic fingers. I can hear their breath rattle in their chest as they… smile? It is hard to tell. They twist the knob to the left. A brief flash of pain, and then the will to fight drops out of me, like a malfunctioning crane loosing a shipping container into the sea. I recognize the feeling - a mindshackle augment, meant to control prisoners. First introduced in the early 2100s, the augment is exceptionally crude by the standards of the day, but the Order of the Cog's Teeth still sees fit to use them.

The half-drowned murmur of the choir is interrupted by a soft humming coming from the corner of the storeroom. I gingerly peek my head around a shelf. Another figure, in grey robes this time, polishes a breaching drill. Her striking red hair makes it instantly obvious who it is.

"Evie!" I call out.

"Goldie!" She calls out in turn. It used to bother me when she first started calling me that, after our first flight together, but she would forget every time I told her not to. It grew on me, eventually. I can't blame her — making all your augments out of golden metal, no matter how spark-proof it is, does cut a certain figure. She rushes over to embrace me, and I hold her in my arms. I resist the urge to trace the scars on her head - the same scars I bear. Hers cut deeper, more jagged. Rushed.

As Asterius slowly moves the dial back to neutral, my rage mounts. I feel an overwhelming pain in my head, and the next thing I remember I am spitting blood onto the grated metal floor. I hold an aircraft wrench in my right arm, which is now bent at a sickeningly unnatural angle. As Asterius walks over, their tripod claw-leg-things crunching against the floor, the urge to fight drops out of me once more. As they move further into the light, I notice sizeable dents in their reinforced metal frame. Despite my battered body, I smile.

"What have you been up to, Evie?"

"I've been organizing the equipment! I can't quite remember where it all goes, but I've been doing my best!" She beams a smile at me. I return one, best as I can. It's hard to smile through a respirator, but I hope she sees the crinkle around my eyes and knows I feel the same.

"That's great, Evie! I really appreciate it. You could use a break, though. Why don't you come with me?"

"Sure thing, Aurie!" She says cheerfully. "Can we go flying again?"

"Not here." My stomach twisted. I often forget, that even with the added nutrient pumps, I need to eat more often than I did before. When one's body is at war with itself, every calorie counts. "Let's go get some food. But the good stuff, not what they serve us in the mess hall. Sound good?"

Evie nods, and follows me as we leave the storeroom. I look back as I cross the threshold, see Lorelai still nursing her wings. We cross the catwalks and hallways to return to my quarters - spotted by no one, thank goodness. I shut the door quickly; no one wants to be caught with contraband onboard this vessel. From within a toolbox, I pull a loaf of pain de campagne and a pack of cigarettes - quality Gujarat tobacco, both of which I had acquired on my last trip down to the surface. Callisto always knew what I liked, and I could not keep myself from her forever.

The crunch of the tripod-frame approaches. I slump further, my brain ignoring all signals to move. I feel a metallic hand clasp around my left wrist - uninjured.

"Stay still. You act against His will. I will correct this, and make you grander in His image." A scalpel slides out from their wrist, and I close my eyes.

Breadcrumbs fall through the grated floor as the two of us tear into the loaf I had brought. It is good - as traditional French bread should be - no doubt baked in the kitchen aboard the Venerable, where Callisto still lives. I remember baking bread with her aboard the ship. The kitchen was too small, and the rolling of the waves got flour everywhere. Even my face was not safe, as Callisto brushed it gingerly with her flour-covered hands. Asterius says it is unbecoming of me to indulge in the past, and I believe him, but it is so hard not to, with memories like these. I suspect Evie would understand, too, had her memory not been stolen from her. Once the bread is done, and we are sated, I offer a smoke to Evie. She takes one, as do I. I first light hers, with an arc of electricity, and then my own. Evie rests her head on my shoulder.

The pain is dull, throbbing. Perhaps the augment had dulled it, too, along with every other sensation in my wretched form. The skin splits like pages of a book, floods with sickly, diseased blood. The knife drags along bone like an executioner's blade against the grindstone, eliciting agony. My arm jerks, but fails to free itself, only being gripped tighter by the mechanical vice-grip holding it in place. I thrash weakly with my broken, broken, body, to no avail.

The puffs of smoke catch the meager light in this workspace, illuminated yellow and red by dials and indicators and bulbs. It is safe here - no hospital beds, or bloody scalpels. Even the throbbing in my head is less in this space, as if I could ever get away from it. Evie is here. I shouldn't complain. It could have been much worse, after all. And yet, she looks so happy.

The pain is gone. With new neural interfaces integrated in place of the fleshy nerve fibers, they filter out the dull, throbbing discomfort. I am surprised - this is a luxury rarely afforded by Asterius and their ilk. I try not to contemplate the reasons for this mercy. I am left to recover what is left of myself on the cold, grated floor, now bloodied and stained. The neural interfaces, not yet calibrated, fire spasmodically, with miniatures knives and arc-projectors and screwdrivers dancing above my hand in a disjointed mechanical opera. They say I am more perfect, now. I do not know if I believe them.

The room goes quiet. Wall-lights, previously a comforting amber, shift to an anemic red. I quickly help Evie up, and escort her back to the storeroom. She cannot descend to the surface with us, after all. It is forbidden. Lorelai waits at the door, standing firm at attention. Her wings, now repaired, are nestled once again on her back. I nod to her, and she understands.

A mission briefing plays in front of my eyes, somewhere behind my skull. It is quick, but I absorb what I need to know in mere moments. I grab an explosive charge off the wall, and proceed into the hangar bay. A mission lies ahead. I do not make mistakes.

They tell me that I am an instrument. I did not believe this before. At first, I was simply Aurelia, and before that, I was the girl who knew and loved Callisto. I was Ophélie, and I was nothing. To be closer to Him is to be more than nothing. To exist in His image is to be more perfect, in a world where one cannot afford to be anything but. I know I am an instrument, now, and I will do whatever is required of me.

As the shuttle streaks down to the surface, I polish the finish on my shock baton. Perfection, as any virtue, comes with a price.

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