rating: +13+x

The gentle rocking of the Venerable brings me to my senses. It seems I had dozed off in the engine room. Callisto is gently shaking me awake.

"Ophélie, silly, you can't fall asleep here! You've got a flight to make in an hour, they're looking everywhere for you! Adrien is looking in the bow right now, and I was supposed to find you aft. I guess I have a talent for finding just where you end up. Get up, we've got to go!"

"Callisto! Gosh, I don't know how I fell asleep down here. Thanks for coming to get me."

"Actually, dear, since I found you so quickly, we've got plenty of time before either of us have to be anywhere."

She gives a sly smile. I nod, and Callisto leans in for a kiss. I reciprocate eagerly, feeling her lips gently press against my own. She pulls me closer, and I relent entirely, melting in her warmth. I run my hands through her hair, feeling the silky strands part before me. It's beautiful, and I savor the sensation. It's more than anything a pressure cell could replicate. The revelation gives me pause.

I pull away from her, looking at my hands in growing horror. Where one should be gloved, and the other golden metal, instead both are bones, tendons, and muscle, hidden beneath a tanned canvas of skin. I find a growing needle of pain prodding the back of my mind as I stare at my hands. Callisto stands stock-still in front of me, her face an unreadable grimace.

The pain grows worse, and I wake once more in a darkened hotel room. Nearly blinded, I can sense a cascade failure in my mental augments, as if recovering from an intrusion. I wipe the sweat from my face and straighten out my disheveled clothing. Even through the fog, I can still reason enough to know attracting undue attention is nothing but foolish. I stare into the mirror. My eyes are dark, bloodshot. Just as I know them. I duck out the side door, hurrying for the exit.

The receptionist does not see me leave, as intended. I hurry through the streets, keeping my profile down. Too fast, and someone will notice. Too slow, and I may not make it in time. I check the navigational display behind my eyes - it's been sixteen hours since I fell asleep. Far too much for someone like me, and twelve hours more than I had accounted for. I am already eight hours late for check-in. Mounting stress threatens another failure cascade, but I shunt power from my internal processors to my leg augments. The time until I reach my landing pad passes in a blur.

Each rung echoes with metallic impacts as I practically leap from one to the next. Despite their solid construction, they strain under the weight of my golden frame. I am in the cockpit and running through the checklist before my oculars can even process the sensory input. My mind reverts to emergency rescues aboard the Venerable, to secret missions with Lorelai, and I let my muscle memory take over.

Air intakes? Check. Actuation? Check. Hydraulics? Check. Fuel? Check. Comms? Check. GNC? Check. Engine?

The engine turns over, spitting black smoke into the polluted sky.


The rotors chop, slowly at first, and then in a blur of black against the blue sky. All at once, the craft lifts against its bonds and jumps up into the boundless expanse. Though my entire existence amongst the Order of the Cog's Teeth could be threatened, and my own personal safety is definitely now forfeit, I feel my worries and anxieties slip away as my craft leans to one side, air rushing over the windscreen and past the open side doors in a deafening scream. The air is so much fresher here at low altitude. Perhaps my younger self would have appreciate it more, without the many redundancies, filters, and processors between my throat, lungs, and bloodstream. Regardless, it puts less stress on my life support, so there is little to complain about. Fuel reserves are high - efficiency be damned, I set course for the nearest spaceport. As I fly away, I can't help but look back at the Venerable, floating in the harbor.

Soon enough, I make my final docking approach with the Iron Hand, that grim, beautiful vessel. The docking port itself belies the state of the vessel proper: its metal corroded, muted red illuminators blinking with the loads of power shunted elsewhere in the ship. Looking further, the ship itself is swathed in this red light, reflected off sharp, imposing corners and sections built out into the void almost organically, as if a great beast laden with steel tumors. There is no void-glass present on this vessel. Any scrying into the deep vacuum that needed doing was handled via massive radar arrays built haphazardly into the exterior. Occasionally, the ship would expand enough to swallow these arrays, and they would inevitably be repurposed into directed energy weapons, reactors, or enhanced repair or interrogation chambers. For now, the torchlights of the thermic lances illuminate the port side of the vessel, reflecting off the void-helms the maintenance workers wear.

As the Iron Hand closes in as the capsule approaches the docking port, the view outside the window narrows to only the indicator lights surrounding the port. I make a 24 Newton-second jet towards starboard and, in turn, the reaction control system motors sputters to life. I regain alignment, balance the pulse with an equal jet to port side. My fingers fly lightning-fast over the flight computer. My formal training in such matters is minimal, but in the heat of the moment I always seem to slip into my comfort zone. Soon enough, the data and life-support tethers click into place and the port door slides open, exposing the long and foreboding hallway ahead. I stand, my breath hitches in my chest, and I begin the walk back to my home.

The interior is uncharacteristically quiet. I fiddle with my aural augmentations, but sensor readouts indicate operation at peak capacity. Eyes stare at me from hidden rooms and workshops; they dip behind doors and windows when I stare back. It feels as if I am being watched. I begin to sing a hymn to myself, for comfort. The sound registers perfectly in my ears. It helps me to put the thought out of mind and focus on the melody. I reach into my robes, and withdraw the hidden picture of myself and Callisto, from years ago. She hasn't changed much. I'm unrecognizable.


I miss her.

Ahead lies the door to the inner sanctum. There, Lorelai, Evie, and myself reside. Asterius lives elsewhere. I do not know where. The door to the sanctum is closed. Not unusual for this place, security is taken very seriously, but I can feel the anxiety begin to take root in my heart as I near the identity scanner. My heart, damaged as it is, working overtime, I lean in to the scanner. The machine reads the unique signature of my right eye's augment, pinging a cheery yellow and sliding out the passageway with a hiss of hydraulics. Swallowing my pride, I step through the port.

The first thing I notice on the other side of the wall is how the amber lights shine off of Asterius' anodized titanium claw-legs, the sodium-vapor pallor mixing with the washed-out blue into some sick imitation of olive. It reminds me of the salt-resistant paint of the Venerable, and how Callisto and I always scheduled our mandated painting shifts with each other, in order to savor every moment we had while still remaining inconspicuous. With Asterius now casting his many watchful eyes on me, it seems our invisibility was no longer a given.


"Overseer." I kneel in obeisance. I know it will not save me, but perhaps it will blunt the blow.

"You return to us."

I say nothing.

"And just in time, too, " Asterius crows. "You are needed, you know. You must dispense His will."

I am caught off guard by this. Is he really unaware of where I've been? Did he truly just want to give me a new assignment? As I ponder, a mission briefing plays behind my eyes. A cyborg, an old operative of the Cog's Teeth, needs to be eliminated. The mission is routine, simple even. A part of me wonders why this is even to be done at all. The cyborg in question, designated as Mimas, looks as if he has not been maintained in decades, perhaps even centuries. I scoff to myself - as if one could ever live that long under the tenure of any Overseer of the Holy Orders. It seems Asterius has pitched me a softball, as it were. With one of his many arms, he reaches out to hand me a pistol - a heavy, overbuilt thing, lined with carefully machined copper heatsinks and a slot-shaped projector. It looks like a smaller version of the combustor rifles I have used in the past - it seems like Asterius has not forgotten. I kneel once more to thank him, and he nods. While he does, he flicks a switch on one of his PDAs. As I try to rise, my leg actuators do not obey. Locked in place, without a way to balance myself, I topple over in a manner exceptionally unbecoming of one so blessed by the Steeled God. Asterius, a mischievous glint in his many ocular receptors, hovers one blued claw-limb above my chest. He leans in, running his eyes across my body, looking for something. He does not find it. He presses his limb against my neck, threatening to collapse my windpipe and crush the myriad augmetics stuffed inside.

"Don't think I don't know what you've been up to, Aurelia. I-"

I cry out, perhaps in terror, in pain, or in penance. Perhaps none of these things, or perhaps all. Asterius clicks another button, and I can no longer muster the urge to speak.

"That was rude, don't you think? I thought I taught you better than that. Honestly, I'm not upset with you. The One Within rewards such ingenuity. However, I must ask, do you know why she continues to see you?"

Because she loves me! Have you replaced too much of your brain with wires to even register such things anymore?

I see an unnaturally human expression etched in his metal features. Is that… confusion?

"You… really don't know, do you? I had figured you'd be a bit more intuitive, given the nature of our work here. Although, grateful as I am for it, you've never been the type to question orders," Asterius laughed, a sardonic grin forming on what had replaced his lips, "from me or anyone else. To be perfectly honest, though, you can't take all the credit. The Machine God's gifts play a crucial role, blessed as you are."

To drive the point home, a second claw gently taps against the side of my skull. Already, my head had begun to ache from the extended stress of augmetic application. Soon enough, though, both claws are removed and the distinct rush of power into my servos allows me once more the dignity to stand and face my Overseer. Still, he towers over me, but I am now free of such unbecoming circumstances. I bow once again, pistol and shock baton crossed across my chest like the sword and shield borne by holy knights of ages long past. I wonder what they would think of me. Would they see me as a perfection of their goals? A divine instrument, wrath manifest? Or would they look upon me with contempt; a creature shaped by delusion and needless violence? Would they see themselves in me, and would those who come after me see me in them?

Asterius commands me to stand and make ready, and so it is done. A shuttle awaits to take me to Titan, the home of this Mimas. Crossing the airlock into its waiting bay, yawning and cavernous yet still somehow so claustrophobic, I shove my doubts deeper once more. One cannot afford to question the teachings on such an important mission. The airlock hisses, then closes. I catch a momentary glimpse of the stars outside before the cabin is awash in blue light, signifying an upcoming FTL jump. It will still be minutes before we are far enough to jump, though, and so I increase my morphine feed rate. Just enough to knock me out for a few minutes - the jumps always make me so ill. As I slip into unconsciousness, Asterius' words sit like a stone in my chest. His words combined with the more than unusual dream I seemed so trapped in last night… For once in my life, I began to dread the oncoming dark.

When I come to, I am slumped against the window overlooking the moon abreast our vessel. I take a moment to compose myself before taking in its beauty. From here, the marbled atmosphere gives way to roiling clouds lit with arc-flashes of violet lightning, belying the methane density of its atmosphere. We are on a course for the surface, though I do not know where we will land. In preparation, I pull a heavy environment shawl from the wall and fit a beryllium-gold respirator to my face. I can survive on the surface with minimal equipment; only an oxygen supply and way to stave off the cold is necessary. Besides, one could not expect the church to waste such valuables as a full spacesuit on one lowly operative, no? In days gone by, such things would be necessary, but with increased tidal forces on the planet, as well as industrial activity, temperatures have risen to what would be considered the lower end of habitable back home.

The craft brakes hard against the rapidly encroaching atmosphere. Flames lick the surface of the vessel, but the pilot holds us steady. I wish I could be behind the controls of this craft, but Asterius has seen fit to give me an escort. A punishment? Regardless, the craft descends, the shaking steadily abating until the ride is smooth once more. Through the fog, I can see spotlights illuminating something in the distance. My target, doubtless. Landing gears extend, and the rocket engines flare out a few feet above the surface. The landing is rough, but we remain in one piece. I doubtless would have performed much more in line with our standards, but I hold my tongue. Already in enough trouble as is, needn't exasperate my Overseer further.

The cargo door depressurizes and flings open. Lights scream in red-tinted anger, baying for blood. I take my first steps onto the surface. Just as quickly, the cargo door snaps closed and the engines roar to life, kicking back off into the surface. I'm on my own here. With little choice, I begin the trek to the lights on the horizon.

In these sand-blasted hills, the wind roars unlike anything I have heard before, even aboard the Venerable during its most violent of storms. I had lead myself to believe that I could no longer feel cold, that the icy pallor of my hands, my face, my chest, my body was enough to ward off any chills. I had been lead astray. The wind cuts through me like Asterius' blade, its cold embrace beckoning me even as it slices my nerves apart. I duck beneath my shawl, offering respite enough from the storm outside, but each step is hard-won against this simple battle with nature. I begin to worry. If Mimas can exist here… Perhaps he may be a bigger threat than I could have imagined.

Cresting the next hill, the floodlights are laid out before me at last. They surround a low-lying community of homes and buildings meant to protect against the wind, likely an old mining outpost. Two guards, seemingly a civilian militia, stand at the gate. They, at least, get full spacesuits. The wind bites even harder now, knowing even lowly civilian outcasts can access equipment denied to me. Perhaps I can kill one and take theirs, though the church would see that the use of such unsanctioned technology as unfavorable. One of the guards has spotted me. He raises his weapon, illuminating me in its attached flashlight beam. He seems to be shouting something. Quickly, I scan through available frequencies until I can pick up on his. Dialing in, his voice rings out in my skull.

"Halt! I-Identify yourself, intruder!"

I can hear the quiver in his voice. He's inexperienced. The other, less so. I run through the combat calculations in my head for a few milliseconds, draw, and fire. The sight picture is aligned with the experienced guard, the reticle focused on his chest, as is planned. The trigger depresses. Click. Chemical injectors send a burst of deuterium and fluorine from their containment chamber into the barrel of the weapon. Near instantly, the barrel kicks back from the force of the liquid spray, and a barely-visible laser reaches out, blowing a hole in the experienced guard's shoulder, setting him alight. I reposition my sights onto the rookie, only to find he's already left his perch. Taking advantage of the low gravity of this world, he launches himself into the storm, letting the wind carry him as he looses a spray of automatic fire in my direction. Two rounds pierce the shawl, only to bounce off my arm, but four more collide with my respirator, the transferred energy enough to shatter my jaw. A final round skims the edge of the respirator, sending a hollow-point into the bone of my lower jaw, blowing it apart completely.

I see in slow motion pieces of bone and skin impact the sandy soil below. The sight of such raw biology - my own flesh, even - threatens to send me into hysterics. Blood spurts from the wound, its stains hidden against the red shawl and robes. I maintain my focus long enough to send a laser pulse straight through the rookie's head, his flaming corpse flung haphazardly deeper into the compound by the whipping wind. The pain hits me. For a brief moment, it is overwhelming, all-consuming, even the urge to breathe cannot overcome my desire to fall to my knees, grasping at what once was, prying my broken body back into place. The only thing which keeps my jaw attached to my body now is the respirator itself. Moments afterward, the bitter syrup of the reactive morphine dosage hits my system, blurring my vision and reducing the pain to a dull thud.

I am awash with agony, even though the physical pain has somewhat faded. Blood streams down my face, hot and sweet and so very disgusting. It pools in my throat, and I cough out of reflex. In my head I curse my biological reflexes as the cough sends teeth and bone shards flying into the scrabble below and a coating of blood to the interior respirator. I struggle to catch my breath as a group of blurred shapes run by, doubtless startled by the gunfire. Civilians or soldiers I cannot tell - each is equally guilty, and in my morphine haze the difference matters even less. Still able to shoot straight, I level my pistol and bisect a straggler. The blurred form hits the ground in two separate, flaming pieces. I haltingly haul myself to my feet, servos in my legs eager to continue the mission.

Another figure ducks out from a nearby hab complex. No sooner than they cross the threshold, a laser bores a hole through their shoulder and they fall to the ground, their one good arm batting at the rapidly spreading pink fluorine flames engulfing their frame. I stumble over the body, the slowly fading pink glow licking my cloak. At least it's warm - the cold no longer cuts so deep into my core. I hold my pistol to my chest - the orange glow of the heatsink warms me even more, its serrated teeth hovering ever so close to my chest. Taking a breath, I flick a lever down on the pistol and hear the familiar clatter of a pressurized chemical vessel on the metal floor. Letting muscle memory take over, I reach into my cloak to withdraw the next chemical cell. Looking down to ensure proper clearance of the gun, I do not see the figure cross the threshold behind me. I hear his footsteps, however, heavy and cumbersome like a primitive automaton, but this forewarning does not give me time to properly defend myself. I only manage a half block and a curse for not watching my back before a metallic arm crashes across my body.

The next thing my brain processes is the chill of the floor; metal cold as ice. Immediately after, I register the sensation of two of my ribs cracking as a boot slams into my chest. Warnings scream inside my skull: my morphine feed is tapped, and the rate of administration cannot be increased. Vital signs are fading fast. All things I know already. The boot connects again as I curl up to brace. The effectiveness of the maneuver is minimal. Another rib cracks under the assault, and this time I feel a burning pain in one of my lungs. Is this really how I die? So far from Callisto, so far from home, on a standard portable hab-block airlock floor? A broken machine, sputtering and screaming?

The figure seems to be shouting. In a brief moment before the next kick, my ascended eye analyzes the assailant as my target. Asterius must be enjoying this. After all, he can see through that very same eye.

"You red-robed fucks! Why can't you leave me alone?"

The next kick connects. My right arm blocks the blow, but I hear a sickening crunch. I thank God I shoot with my left - no time to grab my baton. My left! I had forgotten my gun clutched in my metal hand, the heatsink still glowing orange-white.

"I'm not going back, goddamn it!"

The figure winds back for another kick. Despite the flare of pain threatening to send me sprawled once more on the frigid metal, I intercept the kick with the serrated edge of the gun's heatsink. Immediately, the circuitry within erupts in sparking flames and Mimas draws back, giving me enough time for me to roll away and haul myself to my feet. Immediately, he's on me again. In my haze, I fail to block his attack, and his hand slams against my collarbone. Despite the martial failure, his attack opens his neck to attack. The heated serrations find their mark, ripping a bloody and smoking gash against Mimas' throat. He stumbles back, spluttering.

I take a halting breath and whisper a litany. I reserve the precious few seconds of peace to reload my weapon despite my broken arm. Before Mimas can reply with another devastating attack, he is put out of his misery by a bolt through the heart. As the fluorinated flames spread across his chest, I move forward to confirm the target's identity.

As I suspected, it's him. He's more heavily augmented than anyone I've ever seen - all four limbs are enlightened, as well as two servo-arms on his back. I lament the fact he had chosen to reject his innumerable blessings of the Steeled God. The copper-bronze material burns green as the fluorine eats away at its surface, the god's gifts disappearing into smoke. I linger my eye on his face, still etched with surprise. Asterius would want to confirm his identity as well, though the augmetics would certainly be enough.

Something catches my eye. A mysterious mark on the side of his temple - one I would not have even seen had he not shaved his head. In moments, I realize the significance of the mark, and avert my eyes. Asterius is likely still watching through my eye, and I can't let him know what I've seen. I'm surprised it was not instantly recognized - after all, the same scar graces my own form. If he truly was blessed as one such as myself, why or how had he managed to break with the path?

My thoughts are interrupted by Asterius speaking within my skull. Reactively, nausea rises in my chest, but I am unsure what I'm reacting to.

"Well done. Extraction dispatched, wait there."

I collapse, letting my blood mix with my target's, and slip into unconsciousness.

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