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A Dimensional Problem

Chapter Text

The measured step of nine pairs of boots marked a solemn rhythm against the smooth black stone of the hallway floor. The windows in the Blackspire were thin, high, and deep. Sunlight didn't illuminate people in here. It glinted off of their sharp edges, their wary eyes and their cold hard teeth and the gleaming barrels of their rifles.

Every day Hux made this procession down the corridor, from his office to the parade hall where he delivered his daily project updates. Every day for the past three years he had been making this exact same procession, a hundred yards from door to door, the most mundane of routines. And yet—and yet, there was part of him that was still not entirely sure what waited for him down at the shadowed end of this long, curved corridor.

It wasn't rational, this odd sense that he didn't know what he was walking into. It wasn't becoming of an Artillery officer. It certainly never foreboded anything more sinister than Captain Phasma, waiting for him with her rifle held in front of her chest and her shako brim set low over her eyes.

On the rare occasion that she had reason to smile, Captain Phasma of the 501st Artillery had a face that could power a solar walker. Otherwise, it was as cold and desolate as an iceberg (and roughly the same shape, if we were being honest). She was fair, like Hux, with yellow hair she wore cut so short she could tuck it up in her shako. She smoked cigars and rode for the regiment in tournaments with some degree of success. Rumor was she had a particular weakness for married women, but that was neither here nor there.

She and Hux exchanged “General Hux Sir” and “At Ease, Captain” at the doorway as they did every single day, and Phasma led him inside the parade hall as she did every single day. Sometimes, if she were very drunk or if she'd taken a particularly nasty shot to the head in training, she'd admit that she, too, was plagued every single day by the same feeling he had—that their routine hung by a very thin thread, that the unknown awaited them somewhere just ahead.

And yet, every single day, Hux delivered his update on the Starkiller's progress, and every day his engineers and technicians got to work and played their parts, and every day his fierce machine grew closer to completion more or less according to his design. There were delays, yes, and there were setbacks, and there were more infuriating failures than Hux wanted to admit to Her Highness, yes, but every single day the Starkiller came closer to completion. Every failed test, every futile attempt to combine traditional demonic power with solar plate technology, every humiliation in the throne room as he explained to Her Highness what he had failed to do—even these were progress.

Hux believed that. He believed that, and he made sure that his soldiers could hear that in his voice as he spoke to them each morning, delivered their daily instructions to them as they stood assembled in their black-coated ranks.

“I expect to see no fewer than three Zylikhov Reactions today,” he said with his hands held behind his back, pacing to and fro on the low dais overlooking his engineers. “Causing them is essential to creating an auto-summoning field, which, remember, we have done before.”

He cast a sharp glance at Unamo, who glanced at her toes. She could make as many excuses as she liked about the tattoos on her shoulders—she had created, for a few minutes, a field within which VX-Class demons could be summoned remotely. She could do it again. She had to. One of them had to—they had their Annual Accounting in three weeks.

“We are well on our way, my esteemed colleagues,” Hux continued, “to bringing the Empire of Caddria into a new era—an era above magic, an era where barbaric close combat and half-understood rituals are relegated to the realm of entertainment. We will better Caddria with this machine,” he said. “And even as her enemies kneel before her, they will marvel at her superiority and be inspired to better themselves, to mold themselves in our great and terrible shape.”

He swept the room with his gaze, gave a thin smile to the officers who he'd selected to work with him these past few years on this mad dream of his. “You stand to shape the world with this work, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “And I dismiss you this morning having nothing but the utmost faith in all of you.”

He finished the little speech with a real smile and a little bow to his troops. It was Phasma who bellowed at them, “What say you to the General's orders?

As Hux gathered his papers and prepared to make his exit, they made their customary salute with a loud, simultaneous stamping of boots on the parade hall's floor.

We say Sir Yes Sir!” they called at once.

They did this every single day. He had handpicked them for this project. He had worked with them eight, ten, twelve hours a day. Three years. Every single day.

And still, as he walked back to his office with Mitaka and his spear guard behind him, he couldn't shake the feeling that something he'd never seen before was lying in wait for him.


****


Kylo Ren was a gaudy, gloomy, generally melodromatic shipwreck of a human being who never ran out of reasons to be upset. He had a half-set of demonologists' markings, which he liked to show off with a collection of revealing and outlandish robes and dresses which were even flamboyant for a Caddrian Harlot. He wrote poetry. He performed poetry, surrounded by cooing hordes of girls who wore far too much eyeliner and put contrasting laces on their corsets to be Unique.

But the man had a huge cock. He had a huge cock, and a huge strapping fighter's body, and a huge, unreasonable, splendid, massive cock.

And he'd picked up very quickly that Hux was bizarrely, arousingly embarrassed by his peculiar fascination with Ren's cock. And he'd—well, he'd manipulated Hux, which was what Harlots did, and it was so very difficult to be angry with Ren for manipulating him by holding him still like this, grinding around inside him until he started moaning and pleading with him.

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” he muttered, pressing his ass back against the bigger man's hips.

Kylo was fondling his face with his enormous, gentle hands. That was another infuriating thing about this drunken magician. He was so gentle, especially when he didn't need to be, especially when Hux was specifically spending a lot of the government's money to have him not be gentle.

“What do you want?” he murmured.

“I want you to fuck me like you mean it,” Hux growled.

“Ask nicely,” said Kylo, in that peculiar way he said everything, as if he were only half paying attention.

“Please,” Hux said, pretending as hard as he could that he wasn't whining. “Please, fuck me like I'm paying you a thousand fucking pieces of government silver to destroy my skinny ass before the fucking world ends, you ridii---ihhhh---uhhhh….”

He moved thos huge, clumsy hands down to Hux's ass so he couldn't do anything as he drew his huge cock slowly out of him.

“Fuck you,” he hissed.

“Ask nicely,” Kylo said.

“Please,” Hux said. “Please fuck me harder.”

“Say it.” The smile on the Harlot's face was genuine no matter how expensive he was. He paused the motion of his cock completely, save for a little twitch every couple of moments too feeble to move it.

“Hnnn---”

“Say it,” Kylo said, his voice taking on a sing-song quality as one hand traced up and down Hux's spine.

“Please fuck me harder, sir,” Hux spat into the brothel mattress. His ears turned red; his cock grew harder. Above him, Kylo Ren laughed a laugh that no money could buy as he finally got around to doing what Hux was paying him for.

That laugh explained it, really. Hux wasn't intrigued by his tattoos, wasn't swayed by his claims to supernatural powers any greater than the usual ones acquired by radio technicians. It was Kylo Ren's insistence on infuriating him that appealed to Hux—it was a bizarre, mostly sexual, thrill he got out of being in the company of such a flamboyant waste of resources.

That was it. That was why he was here—the physical rush that flooded his entire body when he came, screaming into the ostentatious red satin of the Harlot's sheets. A peculiar kind of violence. A hunger like that for raw red meat or cool clear water or air, precious air, pure and--

“Time's up, General.”

Kylo Ren withdrew from him with a heavy sigh, still hard, still smirking. He stood up and stretched, and Hux rolled his gaze up to the clock that stood watch over the bed.

He'd come a full two minutes after his half hour was done.

Behind him, the Harlot was slipping back into tonight's monstrosity of a robe, diaphenous black silk that hung off his arms in wide bells. It was trimmed with ribbons that hung like banners, painted with Yahai'i characters for potato and drunk uncle. As Hux recalled, it went with a huge heavy headdress that Kylo had not seen fit to have sewn to his hair tonight.

He paused, sitting on the bed. How long had he been coming here, that he knew which of this insufferable man's ugly headdresses went with which of his ridiculous costumes.

“Are you going to dress?” Kylo tossed him his breeches. “I have a ten-o-clock.” He looked over to the door, back at Hux. He smiled. “I'm bottoming.”

“Valuable information,” Hux replied, rolling his eyes as he stood and shook the breeches out. “I'll pass it on to my Intelligence Liaison.”

“It doesn't make you jealous.” If he wanted to be quoted with a question mark like a normal person, he could angle his voice like a normal person when he asked one.

“What is 'it,' Ren?” Hux rolled his eyes. “The job I pay you exorbitantly to--”

Both men turned their gaze to the door at the sound of a bellow and a crash of splintering wood. Kylo, who was not so familiar with that voice, straightened his back and perched forward a little on his bed. His eyes drifted for a moment to the black lacquered cabinet on the wall, just large enough for a couple shotguns and maybe a sword.

Hux, who knew exactly what it meant when Phasma yelled like that, got his breeches on so fast he scarce had a memory of doing so.

The brothel's third floor hallway had an undersea theme, with swirling designs of blue and green and teal painted on its walls and fairy lamps dimpling fishnets hung from the ceilings. The cast iron spiral staircase was at the very end; Hux reached it in a few panicked strides.

“General!”

Mitaka was running up to meet him, his right eye swollen and his entire face ghostly pale with panic.

“General, Sir! A squad of Dragoons--”

“Where are they?” Hux hissed, leaping down the stairs three at a time.

“The front parlor, Sir,” Mitaka said. “I tried--”

Phasma bellowed again, and an empty bottle came flying out of a doorway just below them. Hux's heart was pounding in his chest as he sprinted into the front parlor. That was close enough to the front door that the Dragoons might be armed.

He had to shove his way through a cluster of Harlots and patrons to see any of the ruckus inside the parlor. Mitaka had exaggerated—this was several uneducated lunatics short of a Squad of Dragoons. Hux could see only three of the red and black tailcoats that identified His Majesty's favorite antique weapon.

Unfortunately, one of those tailcoats was buttoned up the narrow chest of Lieutenant-Colonel Jarim Medrin.

No matter where they fought or why, it was always a toss-up whether Medrin or Phasma was going to come out on top of a single combat situation. Right now, Phasma had a decent advantage of location, being the one with her back to a cluster of cheering Navy officers who stood between her and the room.

But Medrin, no matter where he was, had the distinct look of someone who was dangerous when backed into a corner.

Hux reached for shirtsleeves he wasn't wearing as he stormed across the room, Mitaka bravely following in his wake. A table and several chairs lay in disarray in between him and the Dragoon who'd come to ruin everyone's evening.

“Lieutenant-Colonel!” he barked as he leaned down to pick up a chair that had fallen on the floor. “Nice of you to join us!”

He hefted the chair in one arm and swung it like a longsword as he cut in between Medrin and Phasma.

Medrin twisted and blocked; the chair cracked against his chest and his upraised arm instead of his head.

“Son of a bitch--”

Hux swung a left jab up at his throat and jumped on him when he moved to block that. He started landing punches when the taller man went down beneath him, one right after the other.

“What the fuck,” Hux shouted, “do you want, with my officers, you piece of shit barbarian?” His voice came out in rhythm with blows to the side of Medrin's head.

“Hey, fuck you!” A woman's voice came from behind him along with what may well have been the same chair he hit Medrin with.

Hux twisted around, blind for a moment with pain, staggered to his feet—Phasma had grabbed his assailant and punched her square in the jaw. Medrin's mistress, a scandalously young anvil who matched Phasma in both size and ferocity. But not experience. Experience would have told her to fall back as soon as she got out of Phasma's grip, not go in for an all-out assault so Hux could get in behind her with an elbow around her throat.

He clung to her like a raccoon to a tree as she gasped for air, trying in vain to get him off her neck with her blunt fingernails (or alternately, smack him away with her hands).

Out of the corner of his eye, Hux could see the third Dragoon advancing on them, shouting something he wasn't quite processing. He turned to face the shorter woman—why in the Dread Sisters' name was Colonel Rackham here?--

And a gunshot made everyone go quiet.

Maz Kanata had to be getting into the second half of her second century, but 'sprightly' was still the first word one thought of when looking at her. Even when she was holding a shotgun and leading a group of heavily armed harlots down the stairs. She was tiny and dark and wore enormous spectacles, and everyone in the front parlor shrunk away from the glare she was casting around at one and all.

“Leidra Rackham!” she shouted across the room.

The third Dragoon—the Dragoon who seldom left her duties, the Dragoon who only went out with Medrin to mitigate his damage to her regiment's reputation—the third Dragoon turned to face Maz and nodded.

“You are late,” Maz said. “And your LC is paying for all of this.”

“Fair enough.” Rackham nodded, beckoned to Medrin. “General, that girl has enough nasty grown men climbing on her as it is.”

He hated getting into it with Dragoons when Rackham was involved, and this was precisely why. With her full set and her regiment of horseback brawlers and her constant business with the Ministry of Shadows, she was the very incarnation of everything Hux was trying to purge from the Caddrian military. She was a relic, a fussy and inefficient holdover from a long-gone era when swordswomen were relevant and useful—and yet, she and Hux had the kind of mutual tolerance that he found seldom even within the ranks of the Artillery.

“Apologies, Colonel,” Hux said to her as he dropped from Captain Fenthrop's substantial shoulders. The huge girl, dark and coily-haired and freckled and doe-eyed, glared at him and swallowed as she straightened her back.

She'd just celebrated her eighteenth birthday some six or seven weeks ago. She'd been serving with the Dragoons for nearly two years now. As far as Hux had been able to discern from rumors both malignant and benign, Lieutenant-Colonel Medrin had been fucking her from the very beginning of her service.

Medrin stormed across the parlor to Maz, who lowered her shotgun to press its barrel into his chest. It was a breech-loader—this was a woman who didn't just deal in guns, but in good guns.

“You allow these people in your establishment,” he hissed, elongating his spine as much as he could to glare down at the little bespectacled woman. “And you chide me for my--”

“I don't have any business with you, Jarim Medrin,” Maz replied without batting an eye. “But I was hoping to speak with Colonel Rackham nearly an hour ago.”

“That's enough, Maz,” Rackham growled. She was a handsome, stern woman, about five foot five, dark as night with her hair braided in rows and coiled into a bun at the back of her neck. “We came here unarmed, and at one point I had a bottle of nice whiskey to compensate you for my inconsiderate behavior this evening.” She glared across the room at an Artilleryman who was soaked in brown fluid and nursing a swollen and bloody nose and cheek. “Had I known that old rivalries were about to get ugly tonight, perhaps I would have brought a spare.”

“Hmph.” Maz looked Rackham up and down, rested her shotgun's butt on the step in front of her. “Come,” she said. “Now we have even less time to waste.”

With a flick of her bangled hand behind her, Maz sent the Harlots back upstairs with their shotguns and their shortswords and their machetes. She turned to meet Hux's eyes and frowned.

“Get out,” she said.

“Yes, ma'am,” Hux replied, turning on his heels. He had another coat, another shirt, back in his apartments. The sooner he could get out of this part of the world, the happier he was going to be.


****


It took all of Rey's focus to keep her feet steady along the lines of the circle. This wasn't some shake-and-shimmy by the roadside trying to get a ride into town on Master Plutt's plowhorse; this was a rite and there were steps and she had to do it correctly or this little walker was going to be as useless as it had been when she'd found it.

The little machine seemed to be some type of railroad maintenance walker—it had ratchet attachments and a few drill bits and a basic optic system that the internal demon could use to assess damage on a railway or even on an engine.

Now, the skill with which such a small and weak demon could assess damage on a rail line or train engine was a topic of some debate, and one on which Master Plutt would expound for hours if given the chance. However, there was no question as to the demon's fitness for evaluating the machine which housed it. Either the demon could diagnose the machine's problems, or the machine's original shop could diagnose them. That was it.

That was why it paid to have a half-set when you lived in a place like Neema Outpost.

As she completed the steps (her feet tapping out a sentence in a grammar so ancient and spooky it could only be danced, never spoken), the ink along her arms and legs began to tingle.

Had she been given a full set by whoever had marked her and left her in a basket at the Neema Outpost train station when she was a baby, she would have felt her bones and muscles loosen their structure as she continued the dance—and from there, she would have felt them fuse with the energy of the demon Bibi'yeeat until it could guide her hands in the necessary repairs.

But she hadn't been given a full set. She'd been given a half set, so she could just sort of understand that Bibi'yeeat was complaining very loudly about having a blown-out navigation antenna in its machine. Among other things.

Bibi'yeeat, it seemed, had been left by itself for a very long time. It had acquired a long, diverse list of things to complain about, to fret about, and to chide Rey for not correcting earlier. Altogether, its complaints produced a lot of noise in Rey's head that she had to take a long time deciphering—all the while keeping her feet walking around the cells of the circle in the pattern that matched Bibi'yeeat's Idiom.

But the antenna, it seemed, was particularly vexing.

Hush, please, she said to the demon with her mind, softly, gently, always—always always—always respectfully. I can help you, she said.

Rey was a little shocked by the rush of grattitude and friendliness and compassion that seemed to fill her veins. This was—this was not how most demons were.

Unless they needed something. Unless they needed something, and needed it badly. There was nothing in the world sweeter than a demon with a mission—except Rey hadn't sensed anything about a mission.

As she sifted once more through the perceptions she was picking up from Bibi'yeeat, Rey began to get a strange sense that something wasn't adding up. This demon seemed so worried, so fussy—so unconcerned with Rey as a threat. That was unusual for the kind of minor demon that got trapped in a maintenance walker and sent to patrol a railroad in the middle of nowhere.

She stopped her analysis there. That was as far as she needed to think for the time being—much more pressing was the matter of this poor little defenseless Bibi'yeeat's broken antenna.


****


“All right, Major,” Hux said, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and lowering his gaze from the crackling ball of light that hovered between the quintet of electrogenesis bulbs of the Vaskhar Device. “Let's just say we can create a vacuum large enough to--”

“But sir, it is physically impossible to generate a vacuum field outside of a Level Seven Unreality Zone,” said Unamo, whose eyes kept getting bigger as this conversation went on. “I don't see--”

“And how is the research going,” Hux replied, “on our ability to create similar conditions to a--”

With respect, Sir,” Unamo cut in. “We are running very close to the limits of what we can do without incorporating demonological practice into the weapon's operation.” She shut her eyes, braced herself for whatever consequence she might imagine came from interrupting Hux like that.

But he was distracted. “No,” he said, looking back into the tangle of electrical energy that contained, within itself, a Level Two Unreality Zone. They had done this much, and they had done it by means of human labor. “No, Major,” he said. “There are no limits to what human ingenuity can wreak upon this world.”

“Sir--”

“Look at what you have done, Unamo,” Hux said, stepping back and spreading his arms as he gazed upon the Vaskhar Device. “Look at what you have created.

“General Hux, Sir--”

No, no—look at what you have destroyed, Unamo,” said Hux. He felt a smile creeping onto his face as he surveyed the crackling electricity. “You sucked a hurricane dry, Major, and you--”

“Sir, I did what I did through the power of the demon Bo'fadiz--”

“And is he here?” Hux turned to her, his eyes wide. “Has he worked in this hall tirelessly, for three years, to create this unreality field?”

“I would not speak of Bo'fadiz with such reverence, Sir, if he needed to work at all to do the things he does.” Unamo frowned at the Vaskhar Device. “In fact, I prefer not to speak of any K-Class demons unless it's absolutely necessary.”

Hux rolled his eyes, stared back at the lightning that encased an Unreality Field which might well encase further useful wonders. “As you see fit, Major,” he said. “But know this—when Starkiller is finished, it is the Unshining who will fear to speak our names lest they anger us by accident.”


****


Phasma's third-best horse (she had seven or eight—Hux was never sure) had three beautiful, lumbering gaits, and three or four beautiful, lumbering speeds within those gaits. Hux, having grown up in an era and a region where civilized people rode the train or took a unicorn cab, only knew how to ride about five of those speeds. Six, if he really thought back to the part of artillery school when they had really thought he was going to go ride up a ridgeline behind a bunch of cannons.

“That's not extension!” Phasma was yelling, down at the far end of the ring where she sat with her coat open and her head bare. “You're just going faster—you need to pick him up with your calf so he's overflowing your leg into your hand.”

Hux shut his eyes for a moment and tried to make his body interpret whatever had just come out of that woman's mouth.

“Use the fucking curb rein, Hux! I don't clean this fucking thing because I have spare time!”

“I'm using the curb rein!”

“Use it better, General!” Phasma snapped.

He was dying. He was literally dying up here on this stupid horse, trying not to collapse from the pain in his sides as he tried to sit the ridiculous creature's ridiculous trot without pissing him off with his hands. How was Phasma good at this? Phasma was huge. By all means, Phasma should be bad at this. But she wasn't.

“Now put him on a thirty yard circle. Pick him up. Up, up, up, push him into the bridle and come across the ring—good—good, that's what I'm talking about! Splendid! Excellent, take a break and breathe, Sir.”

Hux was wheezing, slouching in the schooling saddle and uncomfortably aware of how sweaty and red-faced he was. He watched Mitaka trot past on Phasma's second-best horse. Mitaka had been through Artillery School far more recently and actually knew how to ride Phasma's second-best horse.

“Do they actually use any of this?” he said to Phasma as he passed her.

“Who?” said the blonde woman. “Captain, why don't you pick up a canter serpentine with six loops and narrow it down to fours.”

Whatever that meant, it was clearly terrifying to Mitaka, but he spurred the horse forward anyway.

“I don't know,” Hux said. “Jousters? Cavalry people?”

“Dragoons?”

“Are Dragoons not cavalry?”

“No,” Phasma said. “They're mounted infantry. You should know this by--”

“Fuck the Dragoons.”

“Keep him walking if you're going to talk—Captain!” She stood up straight and looked around Hux for a moment. “Lean back and drive him forward with your seat, and ease off the outside rein when he gets under you!”

“See, that—that load of gibberish,” Hux said. He legged her horse forward, reined him in a small circle. “Does anyone actually do that in the heat of battle?”

“Oh, absolutely not,” Phasma said. “This is just how you build balance and muscle memory so you can ride in the coronation parade and not look like an asshole.”

“We've been doing this for six weeks now and I have yet to actually ride at a parade trot,” said Hux.

“That's because a parade trot, General, is what happens when you're trying to get an excited warhorse twelve times your size to walk.” Phasma laughed. “The Clockwork Princess wants to have a grand spectacle—she won't have her precious brilliant General Hux mounted on anything less than a man-eating charger seventeen hands tall.”

“Someone,” Hux said, lowering his voice more than a little, “ought to convince her to have a less grand spectacle.”

“Why?” Phasma tipped her head to one side. “She's the Clockwork Princess. It suits her.”

“It gives her a reputation for frivolity,” Hux murmured. “Which, yes, she's trying to be a Caddrian, but—our work...”

“Our work will prove itself, General,” said Phasma. “You can rest assured of that—all right, Captain!” She stepped to one side and shifted her gaze to Mitaka. “Bring him in starting with flying changes when you change rein—good lad!”

Hux couldn't hear Mitaka whimper, but he could see it on the boy's face. He felt for him. Deeply. Almost as deeply as he appreciated his own ineptitude in the equestrian arts—you wouldn't see Phasma telling him to do anything that bewildering.

“Unamo's running into a research wall,” Hux blurted.

“What?”

“I don't know, she's—she's losing confidence,” Hux said. He halted Phasma's horse in front of her again. “She is, Captain. Se's starting to talk seriously about giving up and incorporating demonological practice and getting into dark research. As if—as if that's possible at this point.”

“It's not,” Phasma said. “We've—we've created an Unreality Zone, sir,” she said. “An outrageous insult to a host of demons I'd rather not antagonize without a weapon of my own in the works.”

“A superior weapon,” Hux pointed out.

“Of course.” Phasma smiled. “Are you suggesting I speak with her, Sir?”

“It might help,” Hux replied. “Friendly though she is with me, she does see her commander speaking to her, and with her disposition...”

“I don't think I intimidate her any less than you do, Sir,” said Phasma. “Our respective ranks aside, she knows how orders flow in this regiment—Captain, sit back! He is not going to give you the changes if you stab him when you are asking!”

“How am I--”

“Backtalk me again and I will remove your pelvis and show you the parts you're assaulting my horse with, Captain!” Phasma seemed to grow a couple inches taller for a moment; even Hux and the horse shrank back a little.

“Anyway,” she said, turning back to Hux. “I'll try. How long do I have?”

“Well.” Hux scrunched his face as he looked up to the high wooden rafters of the Artillery's training hall. “I have a meeting with Fyodor Rylov here in a couple of days, which I can essentially bullshit so long as I have a general idea of our next steps. I have a monthly accounting with Her Highness on the twenty-fourth--”

“The twenty-fourth?” Phasma's eyes got big and round. “Isn't that--”

“Yes,” Hux sighed. “It's exactly between her scheduled appointment for marrying the dying king of a country she didn't grow up in and her appointment for appointing herself its queen.” He frowned out at the ring, where Mitaka had entered into some very tense negotiations with his mount over whether or not they were going to move forward.

“Don't antagonize him, Captain,” Phasma warned—half a second too late, because Mitaka had already applied the spurs hard enough to send the massive beast into a goat-like tantrum that had the poor boy clutching its mane for dear life while he shrieked in terror.

Hux cringed. “I feel like this is a metaphor,” he said to Phasma, not taking his eyes off the boy on the bolting warhorse.

“I'm sure it is,” said the taller woman. “Although which one is you and which one is the Clockwork Princess—we'll have to wait until after the Coronation Parade to figure that one out.”




Chapter Text

If Rey angled the antenna just right, and if she set the receiver module on just the right patch of faded pine planks, she could catch about fifteen minutes of the news broadcast from Caddria City as the sun began to set.

Her dinner that evening was almost enough to be satisfying—a little bowl of leftover curried rice, a fish she'd caught from Master Plutt's pond when he wasn't watching, and the last of the cheese wheel she'd gotten in trade for a resoldering job last week.

She liked eating on the roof of her 'shop' (really, a decommissioned railcar Master Plutt had given up on hauling down to his cow pasture for use as a small barn). It reminded her that the world was still big—bigger than her shop, bigger than Neema Outpost, bigger than the whole of Jakku Province. It was easy to forget that the whole world wasn't low rolling hills, stubbled with gray grass that was only ever green for a week out of the year, dotted by wellponds only where it was convenient for people who could afford to drill them.

Twelve miles away (she'd counted the steps once, walking home from a train wreck with fifty pieces worth of scrap on her back), the railroad curved around a low bluff. A plume of red vapor caught Rey's gaze as it rose to the sky. Beneath it, she could see the flickering reflection of the sunlight off the rail cars, shimmying down the track on their way from somewhere better.

--but there remain individuals, even within the sacred walls of Caddria City itself, who question Her Highness's commitment to Caddrian interests on the international level and even Caddrian values themselves.” Rey imagined the evening bulletin announcer as a plump woman, somewhere in her fifties, who wore specimen hats and spectacles too big for her face. “The Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Shadows inform us that they are cooperating to ferret out these dissidents no matter where they lurk. Meanwhile, Colonel Rackham of the First Royal Dragoons has promised to triple the strength of security during the wedding and the ensuing parade--”

She knew that the politics were important. She did. She heard about the politics every day. She heard about the politics from Master Plutt, who swore he'd never see a solar engine put into use on his land, who referred to Princess Dasha as the tin-can twat and the grave-robber when he was drunk and nobody was around to pass on his seditious thoughts. She heard about the politics from Teedo at the inn, who had built himself a solar walker to carry his firewood and believed every word in Dasha's speeches when they came over the radio.

She even heard about the politics from Bibi'yeeat, who began to fret and whirr whenever the conversation turned to His Majesty's young bride-to-be.

“It's all right, little one,” Rey called to the automaton below her. “Nobody's going to bring any harm to Her Highness.”

She had learned, in the way you learned these things when you lived in a station village, that Bibi'yeeat had a way of speaking in clicks and whirrs and whistles. “Protect!” was the gist of what it was saying here. “I must protect the Princess!”

“So must all of us, little one,” said Rey. She picked up a section of her fish and sucked the meat from the bones, carefully as one did when one didn't want to choke. “But I've done my two years.” They were dull years, and not much different from her years as a civilian, except for six hours a day she wore a red coat and a black shako and patrolled the main street and watched nothing happen in Neema Outpost.

“We must leave!” said Bibi'yeeat. “We must find my master and we must leave!”

Rey sighed as she tossed her fishbones down the roof. A little family of grass dragons had built a nest in the eaves; she could see a faint flicker of scales as one of them startled at the small sound.

“No, we can't,” Rey said. “Sorry.”

“We must!” said Bibi'yeeat. “We must, we must!”

“With what money?” Rey said. “I'm not like you—I can't just subsist off of machine oil and the kindness of strangers.”

Well, she could, in her own way. She knew she was clever, and she knew she was strong, and she still had her pistols and her rifle from her mandatory time in the Civil Marines. If she left, she would survive. She would survive somewhere, and she would survive doing something. She hadn't doubted that in a long time.

But—but she couldn't stop watching the progress of that train as it slithered between the dried-up hills, leaking the angry breath of the demons trapped within its engines. Who was on that train? Why were they coming out here? Why did anyone come all the way out to Neema Outpost?

“The princess!” Bibi'yeeat insisted below her. “We must protect the princess!”

Rey sighed, picked up the fish's head and began digging in the skull with her fingernails. The brain and eyes were all right, but the cheeks were far and away the best part.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said to the automoton below her. “I don't want to leave Master Plutt alone out here.”

Right. What kind of fucked-up person would leave someone all alone in Neema Outpost?


****


Captain Phasma's very best horse was a dapple gray charger (translation: tall, fat, and vicious) with a mane and tail she actually set in curling rags. She did, she did it herself in the evening, cooing to the extravagant animal like it was a tiny child while Hux and Mitaka succumbed to heat stroke in the aisle of the tourney-ground stables.

“Do you think it helps?” Mitaka asked, shading his eyes with one hand as Phasma did something unnecessarily sideways along one side of the warm-up arena.

“Do I think what helps?”

“The tail,” Mitaka said. “Do you think—do you think it knows, sir?”

Hux turned his head very slowly to face the captain of his bodyguard. He blinked. He opened his mouth, and he shut his mouth again.

He heaved a sigh and looked back into the warm-up ring. From the look of it, every knight and senior officer in there had spent an hour or so on the maintenance of their horses' hair the night before. Some had braided flowers into their tails. Some had added long strips of colorful ribbon to their manes. The Mabeti riders had even gone so far as to braid conical bronze bells into the shaggy locks around their horses' hooves (which certainly had nothing to do with distracting their opponents in the jousting ring).

“My guess,” Hux said, “would be that this is some kind of...special occasion adornment. Commemorating the wedding.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” Mitaka licked his thin lips; his eyes darted from figure to figure bouncing across the hot sand.

They used to hold the tournaments up on Mount Caddria, where there was a nice sea breeze and one could ostensibly sneak back to the city once one had put in an appearance and acknowledged that one's troop commander was riding a very pretty horse indeed.

Unfortunately, “used to” referred to a time long before Hux's birth. As long as he could remember, tournaments had always involved a long and sweaty trek out to a hot, dusty field some four miles from the city gates. There was a train now, which was an improvement. Phasma still insisted on sleeping down here, in a cot in the equipment stall between her horse and her spare horse. That was fine. Some people just needed to feel like they were on a real campaign.

She had to be baking out there in all that armor, plain steel built for use without any gaudy tribute to her house or to her regiment. She wasn't entirely alone in that aesthetic, but most of the knights were riding in filigreed, enameled plate and mail that had to be incredibly expensive to repair when it took a lance head.

Their good friend Lieutenant-Colonel Medrin, for example, was doing something perplexing at the canter burdened down by a black enameled cuirass with an entire book of the Jagashash inscribed on it in a spiral pattern. His pauldrons had demonic faces done on them in dark copper wirework; ancient and spooky text spiraled down his leg pieces (Were they tassets? Greaves? Sabatons?).

Hux had to wonder if that was really sporting, considering his family's firm adherence to the foolish traditions that had kept Caddria's technology so undeveloped for so long.

When the Dragoon had contented himself with making his horse leap around in a circle, he halted it and petted it and walked it over to the spot on the fence where his lover-slash-spear guard commander awaited him with his helmet and a bucket containing some version of the “ready kit” that Phasma had told Mitaka to carry with them.

“That horse, though,” Hux said, gesturing over to the lanky black-haired man as he leaned down to talk to Captain Fenthrop. “He doesn't even have a mane.”

Medrin was mounted on a large yellow-dun lardcastle with its mane shorn clean off and its tail braided and knotted into a club. In this, he was singular—and, Hux noted, in his plain black tack.

“Huh.” Mitaka furrowed his brows.

“That's interesting,” said Hux. In fact, it was the first interesting thing he'd seen that morning.

“They are in charge of security--”

“Nobody's doing security off of that horse,” Hux said. Captain Fenthrop was busying herself with its head, wiping foam from its mouth and from its bits with a little rag. It was disconcerting, really, watching someone Phasma's size move like that—furtive, almost, a little like Mitaka on a bad day.

“Oh shit!” Mitaka's hand flew to his mouth as another horse came a little too close to Medrin's mount, and the huge dun picked up his hind legs and aimed his hooves skyward.

“What the fuck—hey!” Medrin roared at the rider of the tall black horse with roses in its mane and tail. “Watch where the fuck you're going!”

The other rider—a tall knight in black iron armor, wearing a black helmet despite the heat of the morning—said something that Hux could not discern. It must have been good. Medrin's face instantly twisted with rage; he reached for a sword he wasn't carrying.

“Get off that horse and tell me that, you son of a bitch!” he roared. He spurred his horse; it reared up, but Captain Fenthrop grabbed the reins.

“Colonel, please!” she said, her eyes big and her jaw suddenly tight. That was the kind of sound that came from an extremely tired woman.

As the happy couple discussed the matter in tense whispers through gritted teeth, the knight in black spurred his horse on and commenced to doing something complicated-looking that may or may not have been necessary.

“Mitaka!” Phasma called, trotting her gray over on a loose rein. “I need to get down to the list—give me my hood.”

“Ma'am yes ma'am,” Mitaka replied, hustling up with the bucket. He handed Phasma a rolled-up black garment and commenced to cleaning up her horse. Phasma unfolded the hood and tied it around her head, tucked her hair up underneath it.

“Hux, can you hand me that blue bag?” She pointed to a flannel sack that lay in the dust where Mitaka had been standing.

She was proud of her helmet—shaped like an old-fashioned Vashium Technician's lab helmet, a workmanlike tribute to her regiment that the troops adored.

“You're going to kick his ass, Captain,” Hux said, handing her the helmet.

“I'm going to kick his ass,” Phasma replied. Statistically speaking, it wasn't hugely likely that she was going to be the victor in this round (since the military actually paid Jarim Medrin to engage in this archaic hobby full-time and called it a command post).

Realistically speaking, however, Jarim Medrin fully deserved to have his ass removed and diagrammed for the benefit of medical students by Captain Phasma, and it was going to happen. Sooner or later, it was going to happen, and he wasn't going to have Maz Kanata and her shotgun to save him when it did.

“All right.” Phasma took a deep breath (Hux could tell by the sound that she had shut her eyes). “Captain, let's go. General, go grab a seat in the stands in the next fifteen minutes.”

“Got it.” Hux saluted her.

Phasma returned the gesture and spurred her horse off.

As he walked along the fence of the warm-up arena, Hux watched the knight in black canter his horse in spirals in one end. He nodded to him, touched his fist to his breast in salute.

He did not expect the knight in black to stop. He certainly didn't expect him to come bouncing his horse up alongside him as he walked.

“General Hux,” the knight said. “Of the artillery.”

“The same.” He smiled. “And you?”

“I'm a knight.” The voice was familiar—but with no face to match it to and a helmet muffling him, Hux wasn't sure if he was supposed to recognize this man or not.

“And I,” Hux replied, “an admirer of your, ah, courage.”

“I'm riding against him,” the knight said. “If he can defeat your Captain Phasma.”

“Is that so?” Hux nodded. “Well.” An idea occurred to him that twisted the smile on his face into a half-grin he was sure was ridiculously unattractive. “On the off chance she wins this round, don't tell her I gave you this.”

He reached in his coat pocket and found a handkerchief, crisp and clean and folded foursquare and embroidered in one corner with his monogram (that was one thing he shared with these relics—they appreciated monograms on things). He held it aloft, above the fence separating him from the knight on the beflowered black horse.

The knight in black took it, tucked it into his armor. “A favor,” he said. “How quaint.”

“I thought it was a thing you people did,” Hux said.

The knight in black did not reply, but spurred his horse off to go do more unnecessary fancy things, possibly at the government's expense. Hux frowned. He hoped he hadn't just made an egregious mistake.

***

Phasma was sloppily fellating a turkey leg next to him by the time the knight in black finally lost, to the Minister of War's wife riding a huge mare with hair the same color as Hux's.

“This is so good,” she kept muttering, eyeing the greasy abomination like it was the first food she'd seen in weeks. “So good.”

Mitaka had been looking vaguely dead inside for the past two hours or so. Hux suspected this wasn't helping much.

“I don't have to go console him now,” Hux said. “Do I?”

“I mean, if you want to fuck him,” Phasma said. “I usually have to talk to people if I wanna fuck 'em.”

“I've yet to see his face,” Hux said. “I never know if I want to fuck a man until I've seen his face.”

“You need to tune into the 9:30 on Station 39X,” Phasma said. “They've got a singer that usually comes on Tuesday afternoons, I swear to the Sisters I just want to fuck his larynx.”

“That is the worst thing you have said today, Captain,” Hux replied.

“Thank you, Sir,” Phasma said.

“See, I don't know who he's--”

“Sir, it's Rodinon!” Mitaka's eyes went wide—he pointed to someone below them in the stands, looking around him frantically with a pair of nervous soldiers at his back. “He's—he's supposed to be on duty--”

“What?”

“Ooh, that's not good.” Phasma swallowed a bite of her turkey leg and started waving it. “Hey, Rodinon!” she yelled. “Rodinon!”

“Rodinon!” Hux yelled, waving his hands overhead and jumping up and down. “What is it?”

When his soldiers got their rifles down, people started letting him get through. He was grim-faced, breathing heavy as if he'd run here. “Sir!” he called. “Sir, I need to see you at once--”

He waited until he was close to talk in Hux's ear.

“We have a level five.”

That was really not something you needed to yell across a crowded grandstand, no. No, it wasn't.

“Shit,” Phasma said. “Let's go.”

A level five was really not supposed to happen in his program. A level five actually—actually required someone fucking around with actual demons.

Hux's stomach sank as he followed in Captain Phasma's shadow. It did a lot of things, actually, and sinking was just the beginning. This was either going to be a long night, or it was going to be his last.


Chapter Text

Regula shifted her weight so she could make a different part of her ass go numb. There was, of course, a sumptuous Tabini carpet laid out on the floor of the equipment stall, but Jarim had brought too much tack to have room for any proper seating.

 

He was hunched over on an upturned bucket, scrubbing at his bridle with a tiny stiff brush. His face was tight and hollow; he never did handle it well when he lost.

 

She could feel his silence in her skin, in the muscles that tightened whenever it looked like he might be standing up.

 

“Get me another glass of wine,” he said.

 

“Yes, sir,” Regula replied. She stood and walked over to him, studying his face for any sign that he might be about to take his rage out on his nearest subordinate. She leaned over to pick his cup up.

 

He grabbed her by her neck stock and pulled her down to kiss her hard. Her heart pounded; the feeling of his mouth on hers made her vaguely ill tonight.

 

But she went with it until Jarim let her go. Regula stood up and looked down at him. He was back to glaring at his bridle, scrubbing it for all it was worth.

 

She licked her lips and swallowed. She picked his cup up off the floor and went over to the crate in the corner where they were keeping their wine. He was going to be a terror in the morning if he kept drinking like this with no water. He was going to be a terror no matter what he did.

 

While she was pouring him another glass, she heard him shift to get up. She whipped around, checked her exit to the equipment stall.

 

But Jarim wasn’t getting up. Jarim was falling down - he was lying on the floor, his long limbs jerking randomly.

 

“Sir!” Regula dropped the glass and was at his side in an instant. “Sir, are you, oh, no…”

 

She held him by the shoulders, pressed his forehead back against her chest. “Hold tight, sir,” she said. “Hold tight - help! Somebody!” She raised her voice, hoping someone could come to their aid. “Somebody help! I have a man down! I need a hand!”

 

But perhaps she shouldn’t have yelled. As Jarim shook and thrashed in Regula’s arms, his lips began to foam with black slime. Regula choked on the stench of rotting flesh that began to come from him, though his heart was still pounding and his flesh was still warm.

 

“Stop him.” The voice that came from Jarim’s mouth did not belong to him; it was thin and cold and oh so very dead. “Stop him while he still lives in marked flesh.”

 

“Jarim!” Regula shrieked.

 

“Captain Fenthrop!” Colonel Rackham’s voice was panicked. She appeared in the stall door, breathless. “Captain Fen - oh.” She stared down at Jarim. “Oh, gods.”

 

She could still feel his pulse when she pressed her fingers to his neck; he was still breathing. But he had collapsed in her arms, and he did not wake when she moved.

 

****

 

This was no big problem.

 

“Primary restraint strap is tight.” Captain Phasma confirmed the check with a hearty slap to the back that shook Dopheld’s entire body.

 

This was no big problem. The Security Team kept the alarms on a hair trigger.

 

Phasma hauled on the shoulder restraints hard enough to make them dig into Dopheld’s skin through his uniform. “Secondary restraint straps are tight.”

 

This was no big problem. The Security Team kept the alarms on a hair trigger. More likely than not, there would be no need for Dopheld to fire the miniaturized artillery piece strapped to his shoulder.

 

He could not see Captain Phasma’s face through the viewpiece on the helmet she wore, and he knew he was just as faceless to her. They were going down past the Second Gate, into an area of the laboratories Unamo shouldn’t have been working in.

 

No doubt, it was a minor breach - some unpleasant pest had come through from the Realms to eat children and make electric components malfunction ominously. No doubt, Dopheld’s role would be to tell the Spear Guard to stand ready while General Hux and Captain Phasma made a game of dispatching the offending creature. No doubt, they would all be topside again in a couple of hours, remarking that stranger things had happened to them in the line of duty and that this had all been very inconvenient.

 

“Weapons gauges, normal,” Phasma said. “It’s into the slit with you, Captain.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Dopheld said. He put a heavily-gloved hand to his armored chest in salute. He walked away from her and took his place at the command of General Hux’s spear guard. All of them were dressed for work Below, in Vashium-proof armor and technicians’ helmets: officers in black, enlisted women in white. They watched in silence while the General and Phasma did each others’ safety checks. The two commanders assured each other that their armor was tight and their weapons were functional in low, curt tones. Unlike the Spear Guard, they carried sidearms and clubs with Radimore Devices on the end. They took their positions at the head of the formation without smiling.

 

“Spear Guard, Forward.” General Hux barely raised his voice as he gave the command. His eyes remained fixed on the Slit as the soldiers advanced through it - a veil of dark fog that hung over the southern corner of this cold, dank room.

 

Just getting to the Slit required security clearances that the Caddrian Government didn’t acknowledge in any publicly available documents. Going through it required a reason. Only twice in Dopheld’s entire service under Hux had there ever been a reason , and he’d nearly died both of those times as well.

 

You’d expect it to be darker once you got past the edge of the haze, but it wasn’t. In fact, the ambient light seemed to increase in a way. Dopheld hefted the weight of the HYPRA Gun on his shoulder; it had been developed especially for use on the kinds of things they were liable to encounter down here.

 

“Keep an eye out for remnants of Unamo’s team,” Hux called to them. “Remember that some of them may not be as they once were.”

 

She shouldn’t have been working past the Slit. She wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the Slit. According to that evening’s logs, she hadn’t been near the Slit at all when the night had began: she’d reported in to her usual laboratory, and she’d even begun personally filling out experiment logs while she’d been in there.

 

But that was all they knew. A little after half past seven, Unamo had stopped writing in the logs. A little after eight, an Unreality Field had temporarily consumed the lab and triggered an alarm. A little after nine, a Level Five alert was sounded in a ritual chamber in the unused depths of their laboratory, well past the Slit.

 

Neither Unamo nor any of her team could be found in the laboratory where they’d been working.

 

“We have four hundred yards to go before the first junction,” Phasma said. “If anything down here is watching the slit, however--”

 

She didn’t have time to finish her warning.

 

“Second company, cover fire!” Dopheld hustled forward, his command squad behind him. “First company, spread out and hold our position!”

 

They moved like wolves, glistening red and glowing faintly at the edges - three of them, snarling as they charged. Dopheld fired at one, fired twice - and it fell, hissing and screaming.

 

Hux and Phasma had taken on the other one, moving in tandem to sap its animating force with the sparking devices on the ends of their clubs. The third seemed to have lost confidence; Second Company had moved on it as far as Thannison dared, and it hung back hissing at them while its companion’s fortunes worsened in its fight.

 

When Hux thrust his sword down the beast’s throat and caused it to dissolve into a puddle of black acid, the third beast fled.

 

“After it!” Phasma roared. “It’s going to alert…”

 

As the beast’s silhouette faded into the strange, hazy light of these deep stone corridors, Dopheld’s ears were filled with the sound of laughter, at once familiar and horribly strange.

 

Hux and Phasma froze, their batons held ready at their sides as they searched the corridor for the sound of the laugh. Was it growing closer?

 

“Major Unamo!” Hux called. “Major Unamo, are you down here?”

 

Dopheld heard a scream. He heard a sickening tearing noise, and felt gobs of something hitting his armor from behind.

 

“She’s on the ceiling!” Tyvik’s voice was a hollow wail. “She...she’s eating Drukas!”

 

Dopheld tried to force his eyes away from the sight of Major Unamo - or at least something that had begun as Major Unamo’s body. Its foot bones and tendons had lengthened well past the bounds of the flesh, rupturing the skin and muscle and giving it a spider-like way of moving around. It seemed to be grasping both the ceiling and its victim with long, prehensile claws, and it had more of Unamo’s intense dark eyes than Dopheld could count.

 

“Spear guard!” He kept his own voice from shaking as he pointed to the thing eating his second lieutenant’s corpse on the ceiling. “Circular formation! Fire at will!”

 

As two soldiers fired their HYPRA guns on Major Unamo, she reared her head and vomited some kind of black slime in their general direction. It hissed briefly on the floor, then turned into a glistening black-green fireball that sent a whole squad back screaming in pain; the fire seemed to be sticking to their armor. They couldn’t get it extinguished.

 

Dopheld fired his HYPRA while dodging to the side; the rest of the spear guard joined him, giving the beast too many targets to aim at all at once.

 

He heard a scream, but not one of agony. He saw General Hux charging into the middle of the ring, his club held aloft, Phasma behind him in much the same posture.

 

One after another, the two of them began swinging their clubs at Unamo’s head, knocking her to and fro with their Radimore devices. The smell of ozone began to fill the air, and Dopheld grew slightly queasy as Unamo dropped his subordinate’s remains on the floor.

 

She shrieked as she fell down, her belly swollen like that of a tick; Dopheld had to wonder how many corpses she was dragging around the arms and legs that now had too many joints. She waddled up toward Hux and Phasma, opened her mouth -

 

And Hux screamed, charged forward, and rammed his Radimore Device right down her throat.

 

It seemed as if time slowed down: the Radimore Device arced, causing the General’s body to seize and convulse as sparks shot across his armor.

 

And the monster that had once been Major Unamo began to writhe and morph, her body losing its definition and stretching at the joints while it screamed in pain. The scream grew louder, and Dopheld put his hands over his ears; he was going to retch inside his helmet, he was going to die. He could feel blood coming from his nose.

 

And then it stopped. The corridor fell silent. A smell like rotting carrion was rising around them.

 

“Get out,” Phasma said. “Get out!”

 

***

 

He had still not woken up by the time they had him laid out on the table in Maz Kanata’s cellar. Jarim was murmuring, thrashing in his sleep while his skin grew cold and clammy.

 

Maz Kanata was humming to herself, drawing sigils on the floor around Jarim. Rackham had opened one of her veins and was keeping his joint tattoos slick with her blood. It was helping, but it wasn’t enough: in order for Rotmouth the Jackal to use him as a mouthpiece like that, the demon had to break through a number of constraints, and the results of that kind of thing were unpredictable. There was no telling where Jarim’s soul had gone, or what it was going to take to bring it back.

 

“And you’re sure it didn’t tell you what it meant by ‘him’?” Maz Kanata looked skeptically up at Regula.

 

“Not a word, ma’am,” Regula said. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not a good thing--”

 

“No, of course not,” Maz Kanata said, waving one hand. “Not if Rotmouth itself broke out of its confines to warn you.”

 

“If something broke through, Shadows will now something,” Rackham said. “I need to get to Warhall…”

 

“If you tell the Ministry of Shadows what happened tonight, they will start asking questions,” Kanata said. “If they start asking questions here …”

 

“Colonel, please, let’s just wake him up,” Regula said. “I...I don’t want him to...to…” She felt her voice crack and put her hands over her mouth, tried to will her breath to come in a steady rhythm. “Just put him back…

 

“The girl’s right, Maz,” Rackham said. “He doesn’t need his temper getting any worse.”

 

For a moment, Maz Kanata pushed her spectacles down on her nose and stared up at Regula. Her gaze was old and keen and somehow harsh; Regula felt the urge to explain herself, to try and come up with some excuse...but for what?

 

And then it was done. Kanata waved her hand, shook her head, and pushed her spectacles back up on her nose. She reached into one of the pouches on her belt and withdrew a small silken bag.

 

“Hold him,” she said to Regula as she produced a gilt cocaine straw and a couple of small paper dosing packets. As Regula took Jarim by the shoulders, Kanata filled the loading end of the straw with a couple grams of shimmering black powder.

 

“Is he going to…”

 

“Sst.” Kanata gave Rackham an annoyed backward glance as she approached Jarim. Without fuss or ceremony, as if she were merely doctoring a horse, she stuck one end of the straw into his nose and gave the other a hearty puff with her lips.

 

Nothing happened. And then…

 

Jarim screamed. He screamed, suddenly, as if he were caught in a nightmare.

 

“It’s all right, sir,” Regula said. “Sir, it’s me, it’s Regula, I’ve got you…”

 

“What the fuck...no...who…” His words collapsed into a stream of nonsense syllables as he stared around the room. “Kanata?” He blinked, struggled in Regula’s arms until she let him go. “What...what am I dong here?”

 

“Beats me,” Maz Kanata said, hopping up on the table to squat beside him. “Apparently, Rotmouth the Jackal broke free from his imprisonment for a few seconds to deliver some kind of warning about another demon.”

 

“What?” Jarim’s face twisted with horror and confusion. “Wh--how? Why?”

 

“Beats me, Colonel,” Maz Kanata said. “Although it does make me wonder if you’ve angered any demonologists recently.”

 

***

 

It was not until after they had returned and been decontaminated and debriefed and examined and fed and bathed that the Spear Guard was allowed to rest. Dopheld sat on his bed in the laboratory barracks, his elbows on his knees. He stared at the floor.

 

He needed to sleep. He needed to go back to his apartment in the city and sleep. Hux was going to need his assistance after this. They were going to have to clean up after this. They were going to have to clean up in secret after this, before Her Majesty could find out what was going on.

 

“Captain Mitaka.”

 

Dopheld looked up. He stood and saluted. As if he had been summoned, Hux appeared in the aisle between the rows of cots. He was returned to his duty uniform, hair combed and demeanor calmed. He stopped in front of Dopheld’s cot.

 

“At ease,” the General said. “I merely wanted to tell you the next briefing is at eight in the morning, sharp. All alerts have been normal for the past three hours - it’s confirmed that nothing got out to Her Highness.”

 

“That’s good, sir,” Dopheld replied. If the Clockwork Princess found out about what had just happened...well, she hadn’t.

 

“Indeed.” General Hux gave him a thin smiled. “Good work in the field today, Captain.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Dopheld said. “I was only doing my duty.”

 

“Mm.” For a moment, the General looked...perhaps ill, or perhaps suddenly very tired by what they had all just been through. He blinked a couple of times, leaned back a little.

 

And then he was fine. Pleased, even. A genuine smile grew upon his features. “Nonetheless, Captain,” he said, “I appreciate your loyal service. I shall have much need of it in the coming days.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Dopheld replied, confused. The General suddenly seemed confident, almost cheerful. “I...uh, thank, thank you, sir,” he said.

 

“Of course. I’ll leave you be.” The General turned with an odd suddenness, went walking back toward the door to the rest of the laboratory facility.

 

As he opened the door, he turned back to Dopheld with a strange grin on his face - it must have been the shadows, for the expression obscured his features and made him appear to be filled with evil glee, his face a pale rictus with the flames of the barracks’s candle’s flickering in his eyes.

 

“Get some rest, Captain,” Hux said.

 

Dopheld swallowed. He realized his eyes were as wide as saucers.

 

“Y-yes, sir,” he said. “Good night, sir,” he said.