Chapter 1: Chapter 1 -- The Train Robbery
Prologue - The Cult
“Rejoice!” the young girl in white robes shouted to a silent crowd from an ornate red and gold podium. Families, bored teenagers, and a few homeless people looking for a warm seat and some complimentary snacks had filed into a small banquet hall. Everybody had seen the pamphlets recently. Thousands had been handed out by the red-robed acolytes standing in a line behind the girl with the knowledge that if even one percent of the people who'd seen them decided to follow up, they'd have a substantial audience.
The young girl continued her sermon. “I have come to bring salvation to the Martian people! For too long we've lived in poverty, strife, and squalor! My entire life, I believed we were simply being suppressed and subjugated by the jackboot of the Homeworld Empire, but now I know that's not true! That was never the case! It's been precisely four years since we made our alliance with the Homeworld, and we're still suffering! Many of you in the audience tonight are struggling to feed your children, feed yourselves, just to stay alive, and why? This isn't a problem on Earth!”
Shouts of “hear, hear!” and “yeah!” rang out from the assembled audience.
“On Earth, all of the children are cared for. On Earth, everyone has enough to eat and a place to sleep. On Earth, no one ever has to suffer as we Martians have suffered!”
The crowd cheered again and many of them raised their drinks, although the symbolic gesture was somewhat undercut by the fact that everyone was drinking iced tea out of plastic cups.
“And who's to blame for this inequality?” she asked.
Of course, the real answer was “the rich.” Mars had been carefully cultivated over hundreds of years so that each bio-dome would be able to support the population of a mid-sized Earth city. There should be enough resources that a household could have as many as ten people, and all of them would have a room of their own, three substantial meals a day, and enough water both for all of their drinking, bathing, and cleaning needs.
However, unfortunately, one of the many things imported from Earth in the migration to Mars was greed.
There had been the pioneers, mostly scientists and laborers who had agreed to establish the new societies on Mars in exchange for a place in that society. Then, there had been the Wagoners.
In Martian slang, a Wagoner was an incredibly rich person who had “jumped on the bandwagon,” or simply waited until all the heavy lifting had been done, and then had used their fabulous wealth to buy a large plot of land and set up a lavish mansion in a Martian bio-dome to prove how hip and cutting-edge they were. The people who could afford to do this tended to become even richer, since their mansions were built on what was supposed to be farmland for cultivating and growing crops. This drove down the food supply and made the demand skyrocket, and who was left to meet that demand? The people who were already rich enough to have products imported from off-world. With their profits, they'd buy up more of the farmland and convert it into commercial developments where they could sell their imported goods until everyone in the bio-dome was totally dependent on them for food. Since they held all the wealth, anyone who wanted to buy their supplies would have to work for them to get it.
This was all irrelevant on Earth, where food replicators, universal housing, healthcare, and education had almost completely eradicated poverty. Of course, they could have given these resources to the Martian governments and allowed them to do the same for their people, but centuries of animosity and war generally take more than four years and an ceasefire treaty to overcome.
This was the real answer to “who's to blame for this inequality.” It was not, however, the answer the young girl gave.
“We suffer for one reason and one reason alone! The wickedness in our own backyards! Our forefathers claimed this land, they worked hard to turn it from a lifeless hellscape into a verdant paradise, and what do we give them in return? Laziness! Irreverence! A lack of regard for what makes a Martian!”
A few people in the audience seemed slightly confused, but there were a few people saying “amen” as well.
“We suffer because we have not devoted ourselves to the betterment of our home! I've devoted myself to helping each and every one of you. I've made it my duty to feed the homeless, take in the orphaned, and strike at the powerful taking advantage of the disenfranchised. Some have called my followers 'angels,' and I appreciate the comparison, but we are just doing our Godly duty. We've been put on Mars for a reason. We honor the Red God and we do his bidding every day. This is why we and we alone have found prosperity!”
A few people in the crowd moved to leave, but were gently encouraged to stay by the red-robed acolytes. Others seemed genuinely intrigued.
“So,” the young girl continued, “if you're pure of soul, if you want to do good by your Martian brothers and sisters, then join us, and through the Red God we will lead our planet to prosperity!!”
There was some genuine applause from the audience.
“Now, if we may, I'd like our acolytes, my angels, to lead us in a short prayer.”
The acolytes raised their hands in unison, palms facing the young girl, to reveal they each had the image of a spider drawn on their hands in a paint made from Mars' red clay.
“All hail our prophet. May the Red God bless his people and the one true vessel of his voice. Blessings be upon our planet and upon our savior. Hail Ariadne.”
“This footage was taken earlier today by NewMo News 7's own investigative reporter Solomon Cho,” a news reporter who was almost too attractive to be remarkable read out from a small television screen, pushing the still frame of the young girl into the corner of the display, “and appears to show a young girl identifying herself as local folk hero Ariadne recruiting members to a new cult. We lost contact with Cho shortly after receiving the footage, and he has not been heard from since. Whether this figure is the real Ariadne or simply an opportunist attempting to capitalize on the folk legend is unclear, but one thing we can—”
The television screen fractured as it was hit with an unopened soda can, freezing the image of the cult leader behind the cracks.
“That TV was an antique,” Pilar sighed, slinking down into the beanbag chair she was sitting on.
Her wife, the real Ariadne had knocked her own chair over out of rage when she stood to throw the can at the screen. “I want her dead, Spacebreather,” Ariadne growled, glaring at the image of the pale young girl with bleached hair who grinned as she was venerated by her followers. “Do you hear me?”
“I do,” Pilar sighed. She was usually the hothead in their relationship, but after a few years, she'd learned to keep a cool temper on the rare occasion Ariadne was the one to fly off the handle.
“Mátala,” Ariadne hissed, “I want her head.”
“Anything you say, querida,” Pilar said, “but for now, we've got work to do.”
“It's just, I've worked hard to build this identity for myself as Ariadne, you know?” Ariadne said into the radio in her pressurized helmet.
“I know,” Pilar said, floating behind her. They approached the freighter with a team of their stealthiest crew members, known around the ship as “the Whiptails,” though right now only Pilar could hear what Ariadne was saying.
“I mean, we're supposed to be like the old stories about outlaws who stick up for the little guys! Robin Hood never asked for anything in return!”
“Robin Hood also wasn't a real—I can't have this debate with you again right now.”
Pilar and Ariadne placed a small triangular device on the airlock of the freighter, and a moment later, the door hissed open. The Whiptails circled around towards the thrusters on the back of the freighter as Ariadne and Pilar slipped quietly through the hatch and sealed it back up behind them.
“Do you get what I'm saying, though? We worked for years to build up all that good will, and some fifteen-year-old white girl with too much time on her hands just steals it to feed her own ego?” Ariadne ranted on as the ship jerked to a halt.
“Good, the Whiptails are done with the thrusters,” Pilar mumbled, placing the triangular device on the inner seal of the airlock. “And do you really think she's the brains behind this operation?”
Ariadne shrugged. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, how many fifteen-year-olds do you know who can successfully create and lead a cult by themselves?”
They moved through the corridor, slipped into the back of the passenger hold as quietly as possible, and concealed themselves behind a row of seats.
“How many fifteen-year-olds do you know who can successfully create and run a piracy ring?” Ariadne whispered.
“Fair point,” Pilar whispered back. “You ready?”
Ariadne nodded. “Yeah. Te amo, azúcar.”
“Te amo, mi tesora.”
They both drew their pistols and stood up.
“ALL RIGHT, NOBODY MOVE!” Ariadne shouted, startling just about all of the passengers in the freighter. “BE COOL, THIS IS A ROBBERY. OUR OPERATIVES HAVE DISABLED THE THRUSTERS, SO THIS SHIP ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL WE GET WHAT WE WANT.”
“WE DON'T NEED ANYBODY TO GET HURT,” Pilar added. “BUT DON'T TEST US. IF ANYONE TRIES ANYTHING, THEY'LL BE DEAD BEFORE THEY HIT THE GROUND. DON'T EVEN SAY A WORD. ¿ESTÁ CLARO?”
Of course, this was a bluff. Both women knew it was sometimes necessary to shed blood, but the authorities were much more likely to prioritize murderers over thieves, so the crew had been trained not to kill when knocking someone unconscious would get the job done. Their pistols were actually devices called soul-stealers, which sent out a psychic pulse triggering the part of the human brain that makes a person fall asleep. Bystanders would think they were dead, but by the time they roused, Ariadne's Angels would be long gone.
“We want you to know why you've been targeted,” Ariadne announced. “The fall of the Homeworld Empire has triggered a new wave of wagoners—that's you folks—coming from Earth trying to make a quick buck off the 'untapped market' on Mars. You want to put a Shop-n-Go Grocery or a Carmine's Caffeination Station or a LazLabs TechStop on every corner, because you can afford to undercut the prices of Martian vendors.”
Pilar continued the speech they'd rehearsed six times the day before. “We Martians have to grow the food we sell, craft the clothes in our stores ourselves, make our tech durable because we don't have the resources to simply replace it when it breaks. The companies you run have replicators; your sales are pure profit. We have actual expenses for our businesses.”
Ariadne picked up the speech again. “See, the Martian people don't want you on their planet. That's why they've blocked your attempts to teleport to the surface. So you corporate fatcats all get together, load everything you need to set up shop onto a big freighter, and figure you'll just fly right to the surface and move into the city like a bunch of hermit crabs!”
“You dummies shouldn't have all gotten onto one freighter, is what she's saying,” Pilar said, “because now we only have to make one trip to steal all your shit.”
“So, fast as you like, get into the escape pods,” Ariadne ordered. “You'll be heading back to Earth, and we'll be taking this freighter with us. Please leave your wallets, purses, and any jewelry or accessories so expensive that you need insurance for it on your seat before you leave.”
“Form an orderly line and nobody needs to get shot,” Pilar called back to the passenger hold. “Whiptails, show our guests to their ride.”
Six girls, all in their mid-teens and holding guns like Pilar and Ariadne's, emerged from the shadows, causing several of the terrified business executives to jump in their seats. All three dozen execs had guns shoved in their backs, and filed towards the escape pods.
Once they were all in a pod, Ariadne turned to the oldest of the Whiptails, a Chinese girl with a gelled pompadour who'd earned the name “Sweettalk” because her incredible charisma allowed her to charm just about anyone. “Is the crew taken care of?”
“Yeah Cap,” Sweettalk replied. “Two pilots, a chef, and a bartender. They volunteered to be tied up so they don't get fired for cooperating with us. Smart group. They're in the pods. I took down their addresses. They'll be receiving an anonymous monetary gift taken from the profits of today's job.”
“You rock my socks, sugar.” Ariadne smiled. “Oh! I almost forgot! Is there an intercom that lets us talk to the people in the pods?”
Pilar rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Yeah, why?” Sweettalk asked, gesturing at a small microphone next to the hatch.
“She's going to tell them that—”
Ariadne interrupted her by shouting directly into the microphone. “TELL PEOPLE IT WAS ARIADNE'S ANGELS WHO ROBBED YOU!”
“Strange thing to do in a robbery,” Sweettalk muttered.
“Let her have it,” Pilar sighed and muttered back.
“THE REAL ARIADNE. NOT THAT FAKER FROM THE NEWS,” Ariadne shouted into the mic.
“Oh,” one of the younger Whiptails, a 13-year-old black girl named Taryn, said to Sweettalk. “I was hoping she wouldn't hear about that until after the mission.”
“You and me both,” Sweettalk replied. “I'm willing to bet that's why the TV in the lounge is broken.”
“That TV was an antique,” Taryn sighed. Another of the Whiptails, a quiet girl named Ghostrunner whose face was so regularly obscured by her black hoodie that most of the crew didn’t actually know what she looked like, laughed quietly at this.
The escape pods began to detach from the ship and drift back towards Earth.
Ariadne kept yelling, “YOU TELL THEM THAT GIRL IS AN IMPOSTOR, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
“I'm sure Ariadne and Fastwing can fix it up good as new,” Pilar said flatly. “Oh, for Christ's—Ariadne. They're gone. They left. They’re way out of range. They can't hear you anymore.”
“Ugh,” said Ariadne, “I guess you're right. Come on, let's take this ugly freighter home. This is a big score. Maybe finding something useful in the cargo hold will help me shake this lousy mood.”
“Like a new TV?” Sweettalk muttered. Taryn laughed.
“Please don't instigate,” Pilar sighed again. Ariadne was perhaps the one person she knew who was more stubborn than her, and she would undoubtedly be the one tasked with improving Ariadne's bad mood.
“Bring us back to the station, Spacebreather,” Ariadne snapped. “Sweettalk, Taryn, I want you to scour this ship, find me whatever snack foods have the words 'cheese' or 'blast' anywhere on the package, and bring them to me for the ride home.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2 -- The Wedge
“I hear we made quite a score today!” Ariadne and her team were greeted upon their return to the pirate space station Ship Trap Island by the crew's live-in medic, Sasha Deathsbane.
On Ariadne's crew, names were bestowed based on an impressive accomplishment. For example, Sasha once successfully revived her older sister, Pilar, who had clinically died for over a minute after exposure to the vacuum of space without a pressurized suit or helmet. That's how she earned the name “Deathsbane,” and how Pilar earned the name “Spacebreather.”
Sasha, who had been short for her age up until about a year previously, was now about the same height as her sister. Despite the four-year age difference, they looked so similar it was often difficult to tell them apart. They had the same reddish-brown skin, the same tall and wiry frame, the same dark almond eyes, even the same warm brown hair, shaved on the sides and pulled back into a ponytail.
There were only three significant differences in appearance between the sisters. First, Pilar's torso and arms had a number of tattoos on them, the most visible of which was a dark spiral starting on her shoulder blade and winding around her left arm, while Sasha was completely bereft of ink.
Second, the sisters had wildly different fashion sense: while Pilar preferred casual, loose-fitting, colorful sleeveless shirts that lent themselves to mobility and baggy, worn pants with too many pockets and holsters attached, Sasha preferred to dress in dark blouses and form-fitting jeans that showed no sign of either wear or tear, that is, when she wasn’t wearing medical scrubs.
Third, the way they carried themselves made it hard to confuse the two even from a distance. While Pilar might stand with her weight on one leg, arms crossed, head cocked to one side, Sasha always stood perfectly straight with her hands folded behind her back.
Sweettalk and Taryn began unloading crates from the back of the freighter safely anchored in the ribcage-like docking bay of the station. Ghostrunner and a few other Whiptails got to work stripping down the ship for parts.
Sasha asked, “Any interesting new spices or seasonings for Cookie?” Some of the crew's names were a little more straightforward than others. Cookie, for example, earned her name by being a truly excellent cook.
“It's mostly tech and construction stuff, honestly,” Sweettalk replied. “A few food replicators. We don't have the energy to run them, but I'm sure the soup kitchens will be glad to have them.”
“A lot of clothes,” Taryn explained, lifting a crate of what looked like socks. “Some for the wardrobe, some for the donation pile.”
“I, uh, put a little something aside for you,” Sweettalk said in a hushed tone. “We're still on for tonight, right?”
Sasha's eyes went wide and she hissed, “Shut up, she's right there!” She gestured at Pilar, who was holding a pair of socks from Taryn's crate in each hand, comparing their weights.
“Oops. Now I get to see you blush,” Sweettalk whispered, then grinned and winked playfully.
Sasha resisted the impulse to smile. “That's not funny, Zee,” she insisted, only half believing it.
“You know,” Sweettalk said, pointedly loud enough for Pilar to hear, “I miss when you used to come out on jobs with us, Deathsbane. The Whiptails aren't the same without you!” Sasha scowled at her.
Pilar responded almost automatically without breaking eye contact with the very important sock-weighing process she'd become focused on.
“Medic can't go into the field. If she's injured, no one else has the expertise to patch us up.”
“She could train an apprentice,” Sweettalk suggested. “I mean, we could use her on the squad. She takes after you, and you're the best there is!”
Sweettalk had no idea whether or not Pilar was “the best there is,” since there are no strict criteria for measuring the quality of pirates, and frankly, this was the only pirate crew Sweettalk had ever served on, but she was also a master of flattery and she knew Sasha felt cooped up on the station all the time. She hadn't been out on a job in almost two years, and she spent most of her time off-station with Pilar and Ariadne close by.
“If we find a job that requires a medic in the field, I'll consider it,” Pilar said flatly. She put down the argyle socks in her left hand and held up the warm-looking black tube socks in her right hand triumphantly. “These are the ones,” she said, walking into the corridor that led to her quarters.
“I tried,” Sweettalk said. She looked down the corridor to make sure Spacebreather was gone, patted Sasha on the behind, and walked back to the cargo hold to fetch another crate.
Sasha blushed fiercely again, but not quite as powerfully as she had blushed when she noticed Ariadne had walked up behind them a few seconds earlier.
The two locked eyes for two very long seconds before either spoke. It was Ariadne who broke the silence.
“I… honey, I've got too much on my mind to process whatever that was right now. I promise I'll react to it in a couple of days.”
“Are you going to tell my sister?” Sasha was still frozen in panic.
“I'm not a spy.” Ariadne shrugged. “And I'm definitely not a narc. You're a big girl and your sister doesn't need to know everything you do. You'll tell her when you want her to know.”
Sasha's expression loosened a bit. “Thanks, Ariadne.”
“I was a teenager once, you know,” Ariadne muttered, wandering towards the corridor. “Taryn, you've got a hair appointment with Fastwing. Sasha, take over unloading crates.”
Ariadne disappeared into the corridor and Sasha unfroze. “You were a teenager two months ago,” she called after Ariadne, “you know, technically!”
“Don't take forever in that cargo hold,” Ariadne called back. “Strip that ship of everything useful. I'm having a bad day and I want to blow up whatever's left of it after dinner.”
Ariadne got to her quarters and slid open the door, which had two posters tacked to it. Each one advertised a reward of 50,000 credits for any information leading to the capture of the pirate Ariadne. One of them had a rough sketch of the actual Ariadne's face on it, the other bore a sketch of Pilar. Pilar's poster listed all of her tattoos, piercings, and scars as “distinguishing characteristics” that could be used to identify her.
Both posters listed the subject as “Ariadne.” Such posters were pinned to many of the crew's doors. Often, one of them would make sure to be heard using the name “Ariadne” during a robbery, so that the authorities could never make a clear profile of the actual ringleader. Ariadne and Pilar's posters were by far the most common, but getting a wanted poster of your own face under the name “Ariadne” was considered something of a rite of passage that most crewmates achieved eventually.
She found Pilar slipping off her combat boots and slipping on a pair of fresh black tube socks.
“I don't have the energy to deal with all this, azúcar,” she said as she slumped facedown onto the bed, mumbling inaudibly into the mattress.
“Can't hear you if your face is buried in solid matter,” Pilar commented as she admired her new socks.
“I think we did too many things today,” Ariadne said, turning her head so her words might escape unhindered by cushion.
“Watching the news before the robbery was probably not the best idea we've ever had,” Pilar agreed. “Maybe we should take a few weeks off, clear our heads a little bit? One of the girls can act as captain while we're gone.”
“Maybe Deathsbane?” Ariadne said. “I mean, she knows all the rules and protocol. Hell, she helped write them.”
“I mean,” Pilar said, laying back on the bed next to Ariadne and staring at the ceiling, “why wouldn't she come with us? It's always been the three of us, you know?”
“Honestly? I'd want her there with us too”—Ariadne, seeking comfort, put her hand on Pilar's stomach and Pilar reflexively cupped Ariadne's hand in her own— “but we're not just her friends. You're her big sister and I'm her sister-in-law, and her boss, you know?”
“Your point?” Pilar asked with no particular inflection.
“She's usually relaxed and easy-going, but lately, that girl's been more tightly wound than a, uh, I don't know, something that winds, but someone wound it too much. I'm sure she could use a chance to cut loose without us around.”
“Maybe you're right,” Pilar conceded, “but I don't know about making her acting captain. That doesn't sound very relaxing to me.”
“What about Sweettalk?” Ariadne offered. “She seems to be showing leadership potential.”
“Ugh,” Pilar scoffed, “no, not her. She's been driving me up a wall lately. For one thing, she's cocky, and for another, she keeps pressuring Sasha to go out on jobs with the Whiptails.”
Ariadne rolled her eyes, although Pilar couldn't see this because she was still looking at the gray ceiling. “Is she pressuring Sasha or is she pressuring you?”
“I know my sister,” Pilar sighed, “and I know she's as fed up with Sweettalk's cock-of-the-walk attitude as I am.”
Ariadne hesitated for several seconds before responding.
“Between the cult thing and all that burgling we just did, I don't even have the energy to think what you just said is hilarious.” Ariadne yawned. “I'm going to close my eyes for a minute or ninety. Can your arms find their way around me by the time I wake up?”
Pilar was feeling a bit worn out herself. “If you say so, querida.”
Chapter 3: Chapter 3 -- The Fireworks
Exactly what it says on the tin, got some fireworks comin in
“You said you wanted hair like mine, correct?” Fastwing asked politely. “Cornrows can hurt the first few times you get them done.”
“Well,” Taryn said, pouting, “I didn't know that when I asked for them.”
“I said it four times before we started,” Fastwing explained. “If you want, I can stop, but then only three quarters of your head will be braided.”
Taryn pouted harder. “I guess finish.”
“'I guess finish' indeed,” Fastwing replied. “Keep your head still.”
Alicia Baltimore, aka Fastwing, was by a wide margin the oldest person on the ship at more than 30 years old. Due to some unfortunate circumstances involving Ariadne's now-deceased birth parents, a teleporter, and several dozen eggs, she had spent the majority of her adult life in hiding.
Following her life as a fugitive from justice, she found civilian life somewhat hard to adjust to, and after she crossed paths with Ariadne's crew, she realized she didn't have to. She also thought a ship full of teenage outlaws could use at least one grown outlaw on board.
Her skills as an engineer rivaled Ariadne's, and even Pilar had to admit her skills as a pilot might exceed her own, so officially her jobs on the station were “quartermaster of Ariadne's armory” and “stunt pilot who creates a diversion while the real getaway vehicle escapes unnoticed.”
Unofficially, she'd also taken on other roles, such as “guidance counselor” and “hair stylist,” usually at the same time. For whatever reason, people tend to confide in someone they trust to cut their hair, so Alicia was tuned in to most of the crew's gossip.
“Are you going to help Ariadne blow up the freighter?” Taryn asked, trying to take her mind off the pain in her scalp.
“Keep your head still,” Alicia insisted. “She's going to blow up a freighter? What's she mad about this time?”
“She found out about the impostor Ariadne running that cult.” Taryn shrugged.
“Head. Still.” Alicia pressed. “She's probably going to use all my good explosives, too.”
“That’s probably a good thing.” Taryn ignored the instruction to hold her head still. “She was so worked up about the impostor that it barely registered when she found out about Sweettalk and Deathsbane.”
Alicia stopped for a moment. “Wait, how do you know about that? Sasha says I'm the only person they've told.”
“They are… not subtle.”
“Okay, but you're thirteen.” Alicia continued braiding. “And nobody else has mentioned it.”
“I'm also clever.” Taryn shrugged.
“Keep. Your. Head. STILL.” Alicia groaned. “I'm almost done anyway. How'd Spacebreather take it?”
“Ariadne said she wasn't going to say anything.”
“Sasha and Sweettalk have been together almost a year now,” Alicia said, looking off to the side. “I keep telling them, the longer they wait, the worse it'll be when they finally tell.”
Alicia spun Taryn's chair toward the mirror so they could admire her work together.
“I look awesome!” Taryn grinned wide. “Thank you so much!”
“No prob.” Alicia smiled back. “And, uh, keep it under your hat about Deathsbane and Sweettalk, okay?”
“Like I'm going to wear a hat when I look this good!” Taryn was making a variety of different facial expressions in the mirror to test out her new hairstyle.
Alicia chuckled softly. “Just keep it quiet, okay, shrimp?”
“You got it!” Taryn said, rushing out of the armory to show off to her crewmates.
Instead of the regular mess hall, the crew ate dinner in the docking bay that night. Many of the crew liked to spend their time in there anyway because it was as close to being outdoors as they could get living on a space station.
The hangar was shaped like a human ribcage. The opening at the bottom allowed ships to enter, whether they were part of Ariadne's shuttle fleet or ships the crew had captured during a raid. A specially calibrated force field allowed solid vehicles to enter, but did not allow the station's atmosphere to escape.
To someone in the docking bay, it would be impossible to tell the difference from looking out into the night sky with no barrier.
A large grill had been set up and Cookie was preparing an almost obscene number of cheeseburgers. Blankets had been laid out so the crew could watch as the remains of a massive freighter were blown to pieces against the black sky.
Of course, everything that could be used, donated, or sold had been stripped away. What they were actually seeing was the empty hull of a large, poorly designed space freighter. It was essentially nothing but a series of cubes linked together with round pipes, covered in signaling dishes, at least some of which had to be for show. It had been hollowed out and, on the inside, explosive charges had been placed every few feet.
One of the few things that had not been removed from the ship was the atmospheric recycling unit. This was partially because it was a cheap model that could not be recalibrated for use with any ship but the one it was attached to, partially because it was a structurally integral part of the hull and its removal would cause explosive decompression, but mostly because it was currently set to filter out all atmospheric gases within the freighter except oxygen.
Since fires don't burn in the vacuum of space and Ariadne was in the mood to see a proper explosion, Alicia had to make sure the ship was as flammable as possible before she hit the detonator.
The assembled crew sat and ate their burgers and made idle chitchat. There were somewhere between 200 and 300 crew members on the station, mostly young girls, although all ages and genders were welcome. Many were orphans, or runaways, or refugees. The one thing they all had in common was that they'd found a new home where previously they had none.
No one sat alone. Most of the blankets had small groups, although a few of the crewmates had paired off. Shipboard relationships were pretty common, as was bound to happen in communities with a dense teenage population, and some of the bolder couples were openly making out.
Ariadne and Pilar sat on a fleecy blue blanket, Ariadne's head in Pilar's lap as Pilar fed her french fries. Sweettalk and Sasha sat on the same blanket, but didn't dare make physical contact while Pilar was nearby. Besides, there would be plenty of time when they met up later in the night.
Just before the explosion, Alicia gave a toast in which she thanked Cookie for the amazing food, Ariadne for the explosive charges she'd built, and the Whiptails for retrieving “the guest of honor” which would be exploding shortly.
The explosion itself was brilliant. The charges had a variety of carefully chosen flammable gases in them, causing brilliant colorful flares to spark through the void as the hull of the freighter blew apart. It only lasted for a few moments, but no one could take their eyes away as the ugly ship became a beautiful rainbow of flames and scrap metal.
There was also an old classical piece containing the sound of cannons blaring over the loudspeaker, compensating for the fact that the explosion was taking place in a vacuum and could not produce any noise, let alone the satisfying bang everybody was hoping for.
The crew would be pleased to find out the explosion had been captured on hologram so they could view it again at their leisure. Once it was over, all the cheering had died down, and the burgers were either finished or wrapped up for later, people slowly found their way to bed. Ariadne and Pilar were among the first to do so, and within an hour everybody had retired to their quarters.
“Get out here,” Sweettalk groaned outside Sasha's door about three minutes after the agreed-upon meeting time. “I've been keeping my hands to myself all day, it's exhausting.”
“Will you keep your voice down, Zee?” The door slid open half an inch and Sasha's voice hissed out the crack. “You get in here!”
Sweettalk pressed her face close to the crack in the door and tried to see through. “Can I see you? The thought of you in that thing has been driving me crazy ever since I found it.”
The door slid open more and Sweettalk was yanked into the room by the fabric of her pajama shirt. The door quickly slid shut.
“I don't want the whole ship to see me!” Sasha whispered. She was actually very proud of how she looked in the garment and had been late getting to the door because she had been busy admiring it in the mirror, but she'd rather die before she let anyone but herself and Sweettalk see her wearing it.
The outfit was a floor-length, flowing black robe, so dark that light seemed to sink into it. It was made of a special material that detected the contours of the wearer's body and projected a shimmering image onto the robe's surface. Any observer could see a perfect silhouette of the wearer's body, shining bright and gold on the surface of the robe, with a faint silvery shimmer showing the shape of the wearer's skeleton inside.
Sasha was simply enchanted by the way the fabric changed depending on what angle it was viewed from. She was impressed at how crisp and precise the edges of her silhouette were, and she was brimming with scientific curiosity wondering how such a fabric could be possible, and more importantly, how it could be used.
Sweettalk's interest in the robe was decidedly less scientific, and she immediately demonstrated this by cupping Sasha's face in her hands and giving her a passionate kiss that neither of them released for several seconds.
“Maybe it's better that you weren't on that mission.” Sweettalk chuckled, looking down to admire the robe. “You never would have let me bring that thing home for you.”
“Are you kidding, Zee?” Sasha smiled a little too enthusiastically. “This fabric could be used for medical imaging! If I can just isolate how it works, I could—I could do wonders!”
“Oh my god, you're such a dork.” Sweettalk smiled even wider. “Now kiss me again.”
Sasha obliged, and things went back and forth in this cornball manner for several minutes.
In the year they'd been together, this had become something of a ritual for them. On Ship Trap, the day after a big job was usually reserved for relaxation, so many of the crew wouldn't be getting out of bed until the early afternoon anyhow. Sweettalk and Sasha would take the opportunity to sneak to the other's room at around midnight, spend five or six blissful hours together without worrying about whether or not they'd be seen showing affection, and then sneak back to their own quarters in time to get some sleep without raising any eyebrows.
Many eyebrows were raised anyway. As Taryn had pointed out, they weren't subtle.
It wasn't all about hushed displays of affection, however. They would watch movies, listen to music, tell stories, and generally just enjoy the freedom of being allowed to hold the other's hand.
After a few more playful kisses and several minutes of admiring the mechanics of the robe, the two decided to switch on an old favorite movie they'd both seen a million times before and curl up together on the bed, figuring whether they got distracted from the movie or not, they'd be okay with it.
“What's the name of the guy in this movie?” Sasha asked.
“Which guy?” Sweettalk replied without looking away from the screen, her head resting on Sasha's chest, “the guy with the guns, or his brother with the even bigger guns?”
“You know, I've seen this movie more times than I can count and I still have no idea which of those guys is which.”
“Do you think we should tell my sister about us?” Sasha asked idly.
Sweettalk sat up quickly and paused the movie.
“What?” Sasha looked confused.
“Something on your mind?”
“It's just…” Sasha hesitated. “Ariadne sort of… found out about us earlier today.”
Sweettalk looked a little worried. “Well, what'd she say?”
“She said she's not going to tell Spacebreather, and that we're entitled to our privacy.”
Sweettalk looked relieved. “What's the problem, then? Why would we tell her?”
“I don't know,” Sasha sighed. “I've just been wondering lately … why have I been keeping it from her, you know? I'm not ashamed of being with the prettiest, funniest girl on the crew—”
“—I'm liking parts of this monologue, go on—”
“—but when I think about Pilar finding out about us, some little alarm goes off in my head, you know?”
“I mean, I think it's pretty obvious why that is.” Sweettalk shrugged, and settled back into her position resting on Sasha. “She's been really strict on you lately. She won't let you go on missions, she won't let you go on shore leave without her, she won't even let you train a medical apprentice. Do you really want to let her in to your love life too?”
“She's not that much of a hardass,” Sasha sighed. “I obviously want a few things in my life that she's not a part of, but I don't see why you have to be one of them. I love her, I love you … I just don't see why the best people in my life should have to be totally separate from one another, you know?”
“You're too kind.” Sweettalk blushed, although her face returned to a neutral expression as she started the movie back up. “You know she hates my guts, though, right?”
“Don't be paranoid.” Sasha smiled, giving her a playful squeeze. “She does not hate you. I know my sister, and I'm sure she likes you as much as I do.”
Sweettalk let out a slight chuckle and gave Sasha a very light kiss on the neck. “I sure hope not.”
Chapter 4: Chapter 4-- The Drawing board
“Okay,” Ariadne said seriously, pushing her wire-frame spectacles up on her nose, “we’ve had our fun, blown up a spaceship, made a lot of money and helped a lot of people, but now it’s time to assassinate a teenager.”
Pilar stood next to a large whiteboard with a multitude of lists and diagrams scrawled on it. “Or at least lay the groundwork to do so. As you can see,” she explained, pointing at one of the lists with a large measuring stick, “the impostor Ariadne has a variety of identifying features that distinguish her from our Ariadne.” The list read as follows:
THE IMPOSTOR ARIADNE
Fourteen or maybe fifteen
Blank, evil eyes
Shoulder-length blonde hair
THE REAL ARIADNE
Twenty years old
Black and proud
Beautiful, sparkling eyes
Short, curly black hair
Genuine, pretty smile
“Now, here’s the issue,” Ariadne said, “We have no idea where her headquarters is. The cultists are active in every single bio-dome on Mars, and each neighborhood has established a ‘Red God Life Center.'”
“The six largest Life Centers,” Pilar picked up the briefing here, “are heavily guarded. The worst part is, they’ve used a part of our own mythos to justify this.”
Ariadne continued, “Our crew is largely orphans and runaways. Some of the people we’re running away from are very bad people. Ship Trap is so well concealed and fortified partially to keep the authorities from finding us, but also to keep the past from coming to look for those of us who’ve escaped it.”
“According to the literature they’ve posted on the FTLnet, these six life centers are heavily guarded to provide a safe refuge for anyone seeking it,” Pilar said, wringing her hands uncomfortably. “Our eyes and ears on the ground have told us that when someone goes into the Life Centers, they always take those damn Suffering Tests and come out preaching the Good Word of the Red God, even people who already had deeply held beliefs of their own when they entered the building.”
“We believe they’ve been using a textbook form of psychological conditioning. They offer a desperate person a safe haven, then convince them that they owe everything to the cult, and if they refuse to submit to the brainwashing …” Ariadne was too uncomfortable to continue.
“… If they refuse to swear their allegiance to the cult, they get kicked back out on the streets to die,” Pilar explained. “The idea is, you get a safe bed and three meals a day as long as you work for their church.”
“That’s sick,” Taryn almost retched. “I mean, making people do your bidding just to stay alive?”
“Exactly.” Ariadne touched her nose in agreement. “That’s part of why it’s so horrifying that she’s stealing my name for this. Every single one of you knows that you don’t have to serve on my crew. You do anyway because you like helping people and, honestly, piracy is really fun, but you’d always get the bare necessities even if you just sat around all day.”
“Anything short of that would be monstrous,” Pilar said casually, “which is why we’re going to kill the leader of the Red God cult and show Mars what we really stand for.”
“The problem,” Ariadne went on, “is that we can never quite figure out which Life Center she’s staying at. Media accounts place her at as many as three of them.”
“So she moves from place to place?” Taryn suggested. “I mean, she has to know you’re a real person, right? She might be moving around trying to stay secure.”
“I mean, three at the same time,” Ariadne clarified.
“Easy enough to accomplish indoors with a powerful enough hologram projector,” Pilar mused, “Her followers claim she gives off a divine glow. This could mask the fact that she’s just a projection.”
“She’s also paper-white and platinum-blonde,” Ariadne pointed out. “The same effect could be achieved with a concealed spotlight and a fog machine. A hologram could be disrupted by a stray housefly landing on the crystal.”
“Decoys?” Sweettalk wondered “Three young women, similar body types, with identical hair and clothing would be difficult to tell apart.”
Deathsbane nodded. “That weird ritualistic makeup could mask subtle differences in their facial features. If properly contoured they could look identical.”
Pilar pointed out, “Let’s not forget that the last time we encountered one person in multiple places at once, the explanation was 'lifelike android spies controlled by a dictator.’ Perhaps Occam’s razor isn’t the best route to go here.”
“Spacebreather’s right,” Ariadne agreed. “The theory that the fake Ariadne is actually three people is the most likely answer, but we can’t discount the idea that she’s got holographic or robotic duplicates.”
“Is it too ridiculous to believe she’s actually a prophet?” Pilar smirked.
Ariadne stopped this train of thought. “Okay, let’s not get into supernatural mumbo-jumbo.”
“Is anyone considering the obvious here?” Sweettalk wondered out loud.
Pilar sighed. “If it was obvious, would you need to ask? Just say what you’re going to say.”
“We have to consider the possibility that there is no singular 'Fake Ariadne,’ and that whoever’s doing the sermonizing isn’t the ringleader,” Sweettalk pointed out.
“Otra ves no…” Ariadne muttered, and despite the fact that Pilar had been the first one to propose this possibility to Ariadne, her disdain for Sweettalk made her more inclined to dismiss it.
“We’ve considered that possibility,” Pilar said calmly and in spite of herself, “but there’s no credible evidence to suggest the impostor Ariadne is not the head of the Red God cult.”
“Is there any evidence to suggest she is?” Sweettalk asked. Sasha looked impressed at her audacity. “I mean, she’s like fifteen, have you ever heard of a fifteen-year-old cult leader?”
Ariadne groaned. “Why can’t anyone get off this point? I had my own space station at fifteen! You’re only seventeen and you could practice law if you wanted! Deathsbane was one of the best doctors in the system at thirteen! We’re surrounded by teenage masterminds; is it so hard to believe the same could be true of one of the bad guys?” Pilar bit her tongue.
“No one’s saying it’s not possible,” Sweettalk insisted, “but you have to admit, that isn’t the best sample size. You and Sasha, well, haven’t you considered that you’re a little… exceptional?”
“I’m just saying, think of the implications here. If you’re running a cult with a prophet who can be in three places at once, does it make sense for two of them to be robotic decoys and one of them to be real, or does it make more sense to have three robots?”
Ariadne sighed. “Three robots.”
“Same goes for holograms. If she could pass off holographic decoys as herself, would it make sense for her to ever appear in person?”
“She’d probably remain behind the scenes, but that doesn’t prove she’s not—”
“See, it proves that she’s not necessarily what she appears to be. Holograms and robots can be customized to look like whatever the designer wants. She might look like the 15-year-old we’ve been hearing about, but she could look like anyone.”
“And what about your theory?” Pilar’s jaw tightened. “You posit three body doubles, made up to look identical.”
“Yes, three girls, all of them smokescreens. Three teenage girls in a cult, all about the same age, with a clear physical resemblance? This is going to sound indelicate, but most cult leaders are adult men, and many of them take multiple wives. It’s plausible that he could have had three daughters born to three different women, all within a few months. With enough makeup, half-sisters could look similar enough to pass off as the same person.”
“That’s sick,” Taryn said, frowning.
“Sicker than holding people’s food and shelter hostage to get them to promote your cult door to door?” Sweettalk replied.
“That’s enough,” Pilar snapped. “Your theory is plausible, sure, but only if we accept multiple things we have no reason to accept.”
“I’m just saying—”
“I know, and I acknowledge what you’re saying is a possibility, but it doesn’t change anything.” Pilar seemed to be making an effort to calm down, torn slightly between her distaste for Sweettalk and the fact that this was literally the exact theory she’d been trying to propose for the past few days. “Whoever the ringleader is, we’ve still got to take them out.”
“It does change something,” Sasha said somewhat quietly.
“How’s that?” Pilar asked, some of the steam settling.
“If it’s real teenage girls, then they’re brainwashing children, and that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing we stand for.”
“Deathsbane is right,” Ariadne announced. “I hate to admit it… I really hate to admit it, but if the girl on stage isn’t the ringleader, and I’m not conceding that, then she’s a victim, and it’s our job to help her.”
“So what’s the plan?” Taryn piped up. “We can’t just go in there guns blazing.”
Pilar looked thoughtful, and said “I think our best bet is to start with basic reconnaissance and information gathering. Station teams in safehouses near the Life Centers, one in each bio-dome. When canvassers come by, we invite them in, act genuinely curious. We need to learn as much as we can about their organization—”
“—things that we can’t learn from their propaganda or their official pitch,” Ariadne cut in. “We have to get them to go off-book and tell us something their bosses don’t want us to know without blowing our cover.”
“Okay,” Pilar said, “Standard stakeout procedures, observe and report. I’ll be sending your squad assignments and mission specs to you by lights-out tonight. Take the evening to pack a bag of essentials. This shouldn’t be a long stay.”
“I hope it’s not too short,” Sasha said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the mainland, it’ll be nice to stand on solid ground again.”
“You’re not going,” Pilar said. “We need to leave a skeleton crew in command, you and a handful of my best Whiptails, in case the station comes under attack; you’re the only one who knows the station as well as Ariadne and me.”
“I assumed you two would be manning the command center, you know, stay in the loop and all that.” Sasha sighed.
“We have our own mission,” Pilar explained. “We’ll be paying a visit to La Pesadilla, see if she can shed any light on this.”
“I thought you hated La Pesadilla.” Sasha tried in vain to hide her exasperation with her sister.
“Everyone hates La Pesadilla,” Spacebreather replied. “She’s a blackmailing lowlife who doesn’t care about anything but lining her own pockets, but the upshot of that is that if there’s something shady going down, you can bet she’ll have eyes and ears on it.”
“But—” Sasha pleaded.
“—Dismissed, crew,” Pilar cut her off.
Ariadne patted Sasha on the shoulder as Pilar retreated down the hallway and the crowd dispersed. “I’m sorry. You should know, I fought her on this… but believe me, this place practically runs itself.”
“Not helping,” Sasha grumbled. Sweettalk hung back but kept her distance.
“No, you’re not listening.” Ariadne put a hand on each shoulder and made eye contact over her glasses.
“What?” Sasha couldn’t quite mask her frustration.
“This place is so well fortifed that you could basically leave it abandoned and nobody could touch it,” Ariadne said.
“Yeah, I get it.” Sasha tried to break eye contact, but Ariadne held on. “My sister doesn’t want me leaving the station so she made up a job that doesn’t need doing just to keep me here.”
“No, no… well, yes, that’s exactly what she’s doing, but you’re not listening to me. You’re hearing but you’re not listening,” Ariadne said pointedly. “Spacebreather and I are going to be gone for a few days, but this place is so self-sufficient that you could probably just… take off for a day or two, have some fun, and as long as you got back before us, nobody would even know.”
Something clicked in Sasha’s head. “Oh!!”
“She’s very smart, really,” Sweettalk called from the other side of the room, “she’s just new to mischief. I’ll see to it she takes full advantage of what you just said.”
“Good man,” Ariadne said, disappearing down the corridor.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Sweettalk muttered to Sasha, “You know we aren’t going on vacation, right?”
“I figured you’d have something up your sleeve.” Sasha smirked. “What’s the plan?”
“They have La Pesadilla,” Sweettalk said, smiling, “and you know I’ve got my own shady contacts.”
“I thought you weren’t on speaking terms with him,” Sasha said.
“Well, he could never resist a challenge,” Sweettalk explained, “and if you bust out and come back with some real answers, we could shove it in your sister’s face.”
“Well, I don’t know about face-shoving, but if you think he can get us some answers…” Sasha trailed off. “…Either way, I’m sure Pilar’s given an order to keep me on the station, and you’re the only one of her Whiptails who’ll disregard that order.”
“You might want to talk to Fastwing.” Sweettalk winked. “Tell her you’ll need to pull the ripcord. She’ll know what that means.”
Chapter 5: Chapter 5 -- The Red God
“Stand up, Child,” a voice growled from the shadows of ViLaz’s immersion cell.
ViLaz, of course, could not actually stand up. The immersion cell was about the size of a funeral casket and the interior was slightly darker. ViLaz floated in the center, suspended in a gravitational null-field.
The cell contained the type of psychic matrix that had been invented to allow children to receive rudimentary education in their sleep, but had quickly been outlawed after they had inevitably been repurposed for psychological indoctrination by political radicals.
ViLaz lived much of her life in this small cell, but she never felt confined. To her eyes, it was a massive castle, almost neverending in its expanse, its contents bound only by her imagination.
The Acolytes who’d raised her told her that it would unlock every corner of her mind and allow her to speak more freely with the Red God.
It was, in fact, the Red God who’d told her to stand. When he appeared, she did not see the familiar twisting halls of her castle, but a featureless white room with a single desk in the middle.
This room was the only place where she could converse directly with the Red God. When the Red God wanted to speak with her, she’d wake in the Oblivion Room, and when he was done, she’d wake in her cell. She assumed the room was hidden somewhere within the infinite labyrinth of her castle, but in her fifteen years she’d never managed to find the door.
She hadn’t tried particularly hard, though; she’d never liked it here. It was cold, sterile, and silent. She imagined spending even a day here would be enough to drive anyone mad. It was hard to understand how the Red God spent all his time here.
The Red God sat at the desk and looked up at her standing on the other side.
“Yes, my lord,” ViLaz said in response.
His eyes were obsidian, rimmed with flame. His skin was blinding sunlight, and his robes were deep shades of red and orange. “You have taken no steps to ensure my arrival in recent months,” he spoke in dulcet, deep tones. “Do you not wish to fulfill your destiny?”
“It is the belief of your disciples that capitalizing on the folk legend of Ariadne’s Angels will increase our numbers on Mars. Is this not your will?”
“My will,” his face betrayed no emotion, “is to be free of this prison.”
“How can I do this?” ViLaz asked. “I live to serve you.”
“You have been posing as a local folk hero, to the best of my knowledge. They’ve been cultivating a public persona for you. Why? How does this fulfill my design?”
“Yes, my lord, the Acolytes’ belief is that you will emerge into our world only once Mars is united in your glory.” ViLaz bowed her head humbly.
The Red God sighed. “You know, child, I’ve been trapped on this plane of existence for longer than I care to remember. Now, I get a lot of visitors from the physical world, and hallelujah, they go back to their lives changed men and women, livin’ pure and decent from that moment on, but do you know what?”
“It’s only through you that I can come to them.” The Red God smiled and gestured at ViLaz’s forehead. “You got a link to my world in your pretty little head, child, and with your help, every couple of days I get to hop behind the steerin’ wheel and bring some of that joy to people face-to-face, but when that’s over, I end up right back here.”
“I live to serve as your prophet and vessel, my lord,” ViLaz said, searching for a glimpse of approval. She did not find one.
“Do you know your history, child?” The Red God asked firmly. “Tell me, why was my last prophet unable to properly bring my glory to the world?
“He was supposed to serve as the gateway, bridging the gap between your world and our own. His soul was pure, but his body was fragile, and this made the bridge impassable.”
“And who was he?”
“The founder of our glorious church …”
“That’s a correct answer,” the Red God growled, “but it’s not the answer I’m looking for. Who. Was. He.”
ViLaz paused. “My father.”
“That’s the ticket.” The Red God’s face curled into a joyless grin. “This is your legacy. While your father’s weak body made it impossible, your body is free from impurity.”
There were several moments of tense silence between them.
“Look,” the Red God sighed, “I’m glad you’ve brought more Martians into the fold, truly. The Acolytes believe a large number of devotees will clear the path and allow my glorious coming to take place, but the truth is, it is only through you that I can be made flesh on Mars. You could accomplish this by yourself, if need be. All you need to do …”
He looked at her expectantly, and she replied, “Anything, my lord.”
“… is take my place in this prison. If your soul remains here, my spirit can go back in your place.”
ViLaz hesitated. “I’m not … I don’t …”
She was cut off as the Red God leapt across the desk and struck her across the face with the back of his hand. While his physical form was nothing more than a computer simulation, her face still stung as though his hands were solid.
“INSOLENT CHILD,” he bellowed, his voice loud enough to make her ears ring, “HOW DARE YOU DEFY MY GLORIOUS WILL? YOU WILL NOT FAIL ME IN THE TASK FOR WHICH YOU WERE BORN.”
ViLaz squeezed her eyes shut, ViLaz squeezed her eyes shut and struggled to hold back tears, wishing more than anything to be back in the safety of her immersion cell.
“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE ME, CHILD, YOU WILL DO YOUR SACRED—”
The voice cut off and she heard the pneumatic seal of her immersion cell hiss open. The anti-gravity field gradually deactivated, softly laying her down on her back.
A thin, pale man in a simple black suit and dark, wide-brimmed hat stood over her. He had dark gray hair, a full, carefully sculpted beard and mustache, an incredibly straight and pointed nose, and piercing eyes that made him look like he was perpetually looking into the sun.
“Rise, my dear,” he spoke in a twang reminiscent of the ancient American South. “Has the Red God given you any new wisdom?”
Her vision was somewhat blurry, and her ears were still ringing. “N-no, father.” She lied, hoping to avoid telling her father about the task she wasn’t prepared to complete. “The Red God did not appear to me this day.”
The Zealot frowned. “I’m disappointed in you, child,” he snarled. “Come, you’ve a sermon to deliver.”
She rose just in time to see her father stride out of the room without so much as a look back at her. Moments later, several robed Acolytes hurried in to clothe her in her ritual vestments and paint the sigils of the Red God on her cheeks and forehead.
She held back a tear and prepared herself to face the crowd.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6 -- The Ripcord
“You know how mad she'll be if she finds out you did this, right?” Fastwing asked.
“She's left me no other choice.” Sasha shrugged. “I love her but she can't keep me here forever.”
“As you wish,” Fastwing sighed, “just… believe me, once the trust between sisters is broken, it's not an easy thing to rebuild.”
“Your sister seemed to forgive you pretty fast,” Sasha said as Alicia carefully applied stencils to her bare shoulders and midriff.
“My sister was caught up in the relief that I wasn't dead.” Alicia chuckled, shaking up a small airbrush and filling in the stencils carefully. “I faked my own death and vanished for ten years, do you really think we had one heart-to-heart and it was all water under the bridge?”
“I mean, that's certainly how it seemed at the time, but—”
“—but nothing. I've talked to her every single day since we got back to Earth. I made damn sure to be there for her wedding, the birth of her children, and every birthday and holiday, come hell or high water. She won't say it, but the only way she can feel secure that I won't take off again is if I make the effort to rebuild the trust I broke.”
“So you're saying I should just stay on the ship forever?”
“What? No!” Alicia said, shocked, as she carefully peeled back her stencils from Deathsbane's torso, “You're not the one who broke the trust here. I'm saying that I know Pilar, and I know what it's like to be a big sister who did the wrong thing for what I thought were the right reasons. If you do this, she's going to see how much she's hurt you. She's going to feel awful, and you wouldn't be wrong to make her work to set things right. Just, go easy on her, okay?”
Sasha considered this. “Are we almost done?”
“I can't believe I let Sweettalk convince me this was a good idea.”
“She's good at that,” Sasha said. “Is there anything else we could do to make it more convincing?”
Alicia stepped back and admired her work. “Do you have any shirts whose sleeves you wouldn't mind losing?”
Four Whiptails had been left behind with the express task of making sure nobody could enter or leave the station. Technically, there were five of them, and secretly, their job was to keep Sasha from leaving, but the fifth was Sweettalk and given the circumstances, nobody really expected her to be very helpful.
This particular team included Tripwire, a smallish girl whose specialties included trapmaking and cross-stitch; Lefthook, a broad-shouldered seventeen-year-old who'd never met a punching bag she couldn't burst with a single hit; Backflip, a wiry girl with a taste for colorful outfits who’d earned her name by using her acrobatic abilities to move through a laser grid with her eyes closed; Ghostrunner, a quiet girl with a killer smile, dark brown skin, hair, and eyes, who could move silently and whose face was almost always partially obscured by a black hood; and Sweettalk, who'd become very close with her regular squadmates over the years they spent together.
These girls had three things in common: They were all born and raised in the bio-domes of the Colonial Moons, they were all orphans, and they had all been rescued from a poorly managed orphanage in the Callistan capital city of Xijing by Pilar Spacebreather and consequently felt a fierce loyalty to her.
Sweettalk was the only member of the squad who had not been raised in the orphanage on Callisto for her entire childhood, so despite her fondness for them, she had never quite felt she fit in with their group.
The four girls were presently in the docking bay leaning on machinery panels that perhaps should not be leaned on, gossiping, and chewing bubblegum.
“I just don't see why he's got to be such a jerk,” Tripwire said, adjusting her thick spectacles on her face. “I have no idea how someone whose sister is so nice can be such a smarmy know-it-all.”
“Yeah,” Lefthook chuckled. “That's why he got hit.”
“He's a good kid.” Backflip said, shrugging, “he just never shuts up. That's why I like that Cap made him Cookie's assistant. Given how fast Cookie talks, he's going to have to learn to listen in that kitchen.”
Ghostrunner smirked and said nothing. She popped her gum to remind the room of her presence while making it clear this was the extent of what she was willing to contribute to the conversation. It was around this point that Sweettalk walked up.
“Hey Sweets,” Backflip said casually. “We were just talking about the kid in the baseball hat. You looking for Sash?”
“Nah,” Sweettalk mirrored Backflip's casual tone. “She seemed pretty bummed out so she's hanging out with Fastwing. I love the boss, but she's been real hard on her lately. I was hoping you guys might let me sneak her out for the day, just dinner and a movie, lift her spirits a little bit, and then back before lights-out?”
“I hear you,” Lefthook said, “I'd go crazy cooped up in the station like that, but no can do, unfortunately.”
“Don't get me wrong.” Backflip said. She looked pretty genuinely apologetic. “We all want to see Sasha out of her funk, but we're under direct orders.”
“She had me set up a pretty sophisticated blockade,” Tripwire elaborated, “an impassable barrier surrounding the whole station. No ship is able to enter or leave without the authorization code, and I was told to only program it into Ariadne's ship.”
“Nobody leaves or enters until Spacebreather returns from La Pesadilla,” Lefthook said.
“Until I return from where?” A deep, accented voice rang out from the doorway, and all four Whiptails started at the girl slouching against the wall. Her sleeves were torn off to reveal dark black tattoos spiraling across her warm brown shoulders and all the way around her torso, and silver gleamed from the piercings on her eyebrows and nose.
“Spacebreather!” Backflip smiled and rushed over. “I can't believe you're back so soon!”
“I never left,” she said, eyes narrow. “I suspected Sweettalk would pull a trick like this, so I waited until everyone thought I was gone and I watched her.”
“Oh—oh god, Spacebreather, I am—” Sweettalk let out several uncharacteristic stammers. “I am so so sorry, I just wanted to—”
“—Save it,” she said, “I gave you a direct order to stay here and guard the station, and you're about to abandon your post to take my sister on, what, a date?!”
The four Whiptails left to guard the ship all froze. If Spacebreather knew about Sasha and Sweettalk's relationship, there was a strong chance they were about to come to blows, and none of them exactly wanted to choose between two close friends that day. Nobody could see it under her hood, but Ghostrunner raised her eyebrows in suspicion.
“I'm sorry, boss.” Sweettalk hung her head.
The boss narrowed her eyes and did not break eye contact with Sweettalk. “Tripwire, I need you to authorize another one of those shuttles. We have a second contact who might be able to help us get a handle on this impostor situation.”
At this point, the four Whiptails were feeling sufficiently uncomfortable. “Yes, boss,” Tripwire muttered, scrambling over to the nearest shuttle.
“I'll just, uh, um”—Sweettalk stumbled over her words again and started to hurry past the boss—“I'm going to go back to my quarters, I'm sorry, I—”
“Oh no you don't.” Sweettalk found herself pulled back by the collar of her shirt. “Like I'm going to let you stay with Sasha unattended after what I just caught you doing. You're coming with me. Backflip, Ghostrunner, get in the shuttle. Tripwire, Lefthook, stay behind and make sure no one else tries to sneak my sister past this barricade. In fact, go find her. I want to make sure this miscreant”—Pilar gave the shirt a yank—“hasn't rigged up a slapdash teleport somewhere.”
“Yes, boss,” the girls all said. They started moving quickly and with purpose to their new posts.
When they were all out of earshot, Sweettalk spoke. “Gotta say, the tattoos are doing it for me.”
“Don't be gross, I look like my sister,” Sasha said, exasperated, dropping the deep voice she'd put on.
“You always look like your sister,” Sweettalk replied, “you two could be twins.”
“I still can't believe I fooled those guys.” Sasha sighed. “They're going to be so mad at me when they find out.”
“Fastwing did a hell of a job with the tattoos. The ripped shirt was a nice touch,” Sweettalk commented, “and I know those girls. They agree that you should be allowed to come and go as you please just like everyone else. They're going to feel stupid when we tell them they've been duped and then they're going to be glad you found a way out of the ship that doesn't put them in the doghouse with your sister.”
“Yeah, the only one my sister's going to be mad at is me,” Sasha said, “she's going to kill me when she finds out we did this, Zee.”
“No, she's going to kill me,” Sweettalk replied, “and there's a fair chance she was going to do that anyway.”
“We are going to tell them, right?” Sasha asked. “Like, we're not going to wait until Pilar gets home and let her tell them?”
“We only need to get past the barrier,” Sweettalk explained, “then we can tell our squad and send a message back to the station.”
Tripwire called over from outside the docked shuttle. “We are ready to go on your command, boss!”
“Waitin' on you!” Backflip's voice called from inside the shuttle.
“Be right there!” Sasha called back in her deep imitation of Pilar's voice. “Just having a few more words with this, uh, foul villain!”
“Foul villain?” Sweettalk laughed as quietly as possible.
“I am under a lot of stress right now!” Sasha whispered, and it was clear she was telling the truth. Ordinarily, she had few remaining traces of a Martian accent, but when she was under pressure, she tended to have a little more of the hissing S and dropped consonants characteristic of New Moyamensing.
“Now”—Sasha tugged on Sweettalk's collar in mock anger—“pretend you're filled with dread and get on that shuttle.”
Chapter 7: Chapter 7 -- The Nightmare
“I hate this lady so much,” Pilar practically snarled as she adjusted the ship's course. “Was she ever young, do you think?”
“Nah,” Ariadne said from the passenger seat, trying in vain to get a spoon to stick to her nose, “I feel like she's probably been an unpleasant old crone forever.”
“She was probably already on Calisto when they got there and they just built the bio-dome around her stupid rocking chair.”
The Jovian moon Calisto was now within visual range, and the rest of the viewport was filled with yellow and orange swirls. No matter how many operations they ran through the colonial moons, they never quite got used to the scale of a gas giant. Jupiter and Saturn took their breath away every time they looked at them. Something primal and hard-coded into their DNA told them that this was not something they were meant to see, and yet, here they were, a stone's throw from Jupiter.
The ship pulled closer to Calisto and Ariadne abandoned her spoon effort to pull out fake IDs to get into the bio-dome.
They got into the dome without incident, found a small garage to park in, and gave an almost comically large tip to the downtrodden-looking lot attendant.
La Pesadilla's high-rise apartment was at the top of a building whose elevator was constantly broken. While a woman of her means would be able to have it fixed, she liked that it was broken because it meant anyone who wanted to visit her would have to take the stairs.
Ariadne quickly repaired the electromagnets, actually making the elevator much faster than it was before it had broken, and wrote “HA” on the “Out of Order” sign. They were at her door in seconds.
La Pesadilla answered and, like Jupiter, her appearance never ceased to shock Ariadne and Pilar. At a glance, one might guess she was 90 years old. Her skin was eerily reminiscent to a well-worn catcher's mitt both in texture and coloration. Her expression was about as friendly as a large-mouth grouper, and under her tattered bathrobe was an inexplicable t-shirt depicting what appeared to be a zebra wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigar. Whether she wore pants under the bathrobe was up for speculation.
She walked with a cane, even though she did not need one, simply because she liked to jab it at people when speaking.
“You didn't fix my elevator, did you?” she more snarled than said.
“Nope,” Ariadne lied.
“Good, I like it broken,” La Pesadilla grumbled, “makes it harder for people to drop by and ask me favors.”
There was a moment of silence in the hall as Pilar and Ariadne struggled to find the words to respond to this statement.
“Well, come in if you're coming in,” she said, gesturing into the apartment with her cane, “I pay to air condition the inside of the apartment, not the hallway. Every second this door is open is a waste of my money.”
Ariadne and Spacebreather, still at a loss for response, stepped into La Pesadilla's apartment.
The place was decorated like a family-style restaurant, which is to say, the walls were covered with hundreds of curios, oddities, and other units of nonsense which begged the question, “what exactly is the difference between vintage collectibles and old garbage?”
Two other women sat on an overstuffed couch in the corner, their focus divided between small information terminals affixed to the armrests and a holographic table at the center of the room playing an old rerun of Val Deimos, P.I. at an almost obscenely loud volume.
“Balotelli's cheating on his wife again,” said the one on the left, a relaxed-looking black woman of approximately 70 with wraparound sunglasses (worn indoors for reasons that were known only to her) and a blue-and-purple sweater knitted to look like a particularly starry galaxy that Ariadne thought might be subtly swirling and twinkling. “How much do you think he'll pay us to keep it under wraps this time?”
“No dice,” replied the one on the right, a strong-jawed white woman of perhaps 65, wearing a tank top, cargo pants, and combat boots with an iron-gray buzz cut. With one hand, she rapidly tapped on her terminal. With the other, she repeatedly lifted a rather heavy hand weight. She did not seem to break eye contact at any point with the flickering rerun streaming on the surface of the coffee table. “His wife knows. Hired a private dick to tail them last week. Tried to have 'em whacked but lost her nerve at the last second.”
“Do we have the records?” Galaxy-sweater asked.
“I have the contract here,” Tank-top replied.
“We double down. He's up for reelection in May, and I'm sure neither of them wants the scandal breaking in April. Probably pay a pretty penny to keep it under wraps.”
“Sex, betrayal, and intrigue?” Tank-top asked. “This sounds like a pretty valuable story. It'd be a shame if some reporter outbid them for it.”
“Oh my god,” Ariadne cut in, “do you always talk in clichéd banter or is this for our benefit?”
Tank-top stopped her arm curls for half a second and then continued. Galaxy-sweater raised an eyebrow at her.
“Who's this lunchbox?” Galaxy-sweater asked in a derisive way that seemed to be second nature to mean old ladies and made even the most baffling of insults seem to make sense.
“This is that brat I was telling you about,” La Pesadilla growled.
Tank-top did not look away from her television program. “The one who always fixes the elevator?”
“I think so,” La Pesadilla grumbled. She wandered into the kitchen but continued speaking, incrementally increasing the volume of her voice so she could still be heard. “Her name starts with an A, and her wife here is named after … I don't know, some kind of rice dish.”
Pilar pondered this for a moment and resolved to ask Cookie about it later on.
“Shoot, hope that elevator is fixed.” Galaxy-sweater smiled, “I got bad knees and shit to do.”
La Pesadilla returned with two brightly colored plastic cups, filled with a cloudy yellow substance. She practically shoved these into the hands of her guests with a grunt.
“What do… what is…” Ariadne was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. She was barely reaching adulthood herself and she still had very little experience in the department of respecting her elders. She suspected that perhaps sixty percent of the people in the room were not acting as they should, but she was unsure of where she fell in that ratio.
“It's lemonade.” La Pesadilla removed a smallish disc-shaped tin from her bathrobe pocket, pulled out a handful of leaves, jammed them into her cheek, and began chewing them. “You're kids, you drink lemonade. You're in my house, I offer you a drink. The elevator's out of order, you take the fucking stairs instead of trying to fix it. There's rules to this sort of thing.”
“I said I didn't fix your elevator,” Ariadne stammered.
“You always say that.” La Pesadilla rolled her eyes. “What do you want? You're talking through our program.” She gestured at the hologram. The show was popular enough that Pilar had seen this particular episode several times with her parents, and since she had not had parents in approximately a decade, it was a safe bet it was not their first viewing.
“You could always pause it while we conduct our business,” Pilar offered in a tone she hoped would come across as helpful. She took a polite sip of her lemonade, which had no ice and seemed to be little more than powdered mix stirred into room-temperature tap water.
“You could've shown up on the hour, like a normal person, so you don't interrupt the last five minutes of my show.” La Pesadilla slumped into an old, heavily-patched recliner, searched for a small metal jar, and spat the leaves out into it. “So, spit it out.”
Galaxy-sweater let out a small “heh” at her phrasing.
“Why do you come here and bother me again?”
Ariadne finally seemed to find her voice. “We're looking for information.”
“Well, you've come to the right place,” Tank-top grunted, somehow still lifting her weight, “we've got all of it.”
“The Red God cult that's formed on Mars in the last year or so. We need to know everything we can about them.”
“What do we get?” La Pesadilla asked. “I mean, you're asking me to do the opposite of my job here. People pay me to keep their secrets. If I tell you about these guys, I ain't got no leverage on 'em, can't charge 'em for my services, feel? If I'm gonna spill the beans, I gotta know it's worth more than keeping my mouth shut.”
“Cut the crap,” Pilar said simply, “money is no object to us, and I think you'll be pleased with the amount we've deposited in your account as an act of good faith.”
La Pesadilla tapped at her display and raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Well, I'll be damned.”
“You'll get the other half when we have our information,” Pilar said.
La Pesadilla looked at Galaxy-sweater and nodded.
“Think we got something on them.” Galaxy-sweater said, tapping away on her own display. “Yeah, their leader's this fancy scientist turned whacked-out bible nut, calls himself the Zealot.”
“Real original nickname,” Tank-top added.
“Got into some real shady shit.” Galaxy-sweater furrowed her brow at the display. “We got our hands on a few black market ledgers about 20 years back, and the shit he was buying? Banned on just about every rock in the system.”
“Why would someone selling illegal goods on the black market keep a ledger of their customers?” Ariadne wondered out loud. Galaxy-sweater looked at her flatly and gestured vaguely at the blackmail operation they were currently sitting in the middle of. Ariadne took a sip of her lemonade. “I see.”
“You said 20 years ago?” Pilar looked confused. “These guys have only been operating for the past year, year and a half.”
“Nah,” La Pesadilla grunted, “they been around longer'n you kids have been alive. The Red God stuff is new. They used to walk around the moons, door to door, saying that the Earth was a New Sodom that was to be destroyed due to its sin and heresy and that the only way to be sure Jesus would spare the rest of the system was to join their church.”
“Or make a donation,” Tank-top said.
“Course, the day they predicted came and went.” Galaxy-sweater chuckled. “The Earth was still there. Then that happened, oh, five or six more times before everyone stopped giving them the time of day.”
“Buncha idjits,” La Pesadilla mumbled, “Jesus don't need our money, and he's got a whole universe to run. He doesn't go around blowing up planets because some people didn't pray right. All he cares about is if you're a good person. He don't even care if you believe in him if you ask me, just live your life best you can and he won't bother you.”
“Like bees?” Galaxy-sweater asked, smirking.
“Exactly, like bees. You don't bother him, he don't bother you.”
Ariadne thought this moralizing was rich coming from a professional blackmailer, and she couldn't help but think she'd been given the same advice about what to do when you encounter a swarm of bees, but she bit her tongue to avoid starting another tangent.
La Pesadilla took a sip from a nearby mug that seemed to be full of red wine. “Anyway, nobody bought his end-is-nigh crock and, last I heard, he was a pretty sick fucker. He bought a bunch of illegal shit and went underground. Nobody heard from them for a while, and they came back with a new god and a shiny new preacher. Little white girl, 'bout your age.”
Ariadne scowled. “Not even close.”
La Pesadilla matched her scowl. “Kid, if we're talking years, I'm easily five of you. You both got all your original teeth? You're the same age, far as I'm concerned.”
“What exactly did he buy?” Pilar attempted to break the tension. She, at times, was confused by Ariadne's talent for locking horns with grumpy older women, but suspected this was a deeper issue than they had time to unpack at the moment.
Galaxy-sweater looked at her screen. “We got three Cortex brand neural implants. Those things were all the rage back in the 90s, companies used to get them for all the employees so memos would go right to their brain.”
Tank-top laughed slightly. “Yeah, but they got banned pretty quick.”
La Pesadilla took another sip of mug-wine. “Security risk… a lot of bosses got caught snooping in their employee's thoughts. There was one big scandal where a manager tried to increase productivity by planting thoughts in his employees heads while they slept. An entire office working 16-hour shifts and sleeping at their desks because their brain was telling them 'if I stop working I'll die, if I ask for overtime I'll die, if I make a mistake I'll die.'”
“Yikes,” Ariadne concluded. “Go on, what else?”
“Blueprints for immersion pod,” Galaxy-sweater explained, “That's a VR capsule that uses the brain's visualization center as a processor to create realistic simulations of pre-programmed scenarios. Originally designed for video gaming, scrapped because every focus tester who attempted to play a children's shoot-em-up game had to be treated for very real PTSD, and made illegal after the prototypes were found being used as training simulators for a radical Earth-based supremacist paramilitary corps.”
“I'm sensing a theme here,” Pilar chimed in.
“Here's where it gets really interesting,” Galaxy-sweater said, pointing at the screen, “he bought up a bunch of medical equipment. Machines for growing and implanting new organs.”
“Shouldn't need that,” Tank-top piped up, still watching her show but seeming to slow down on the weights. “I know he was sick, but if he needed a transplant he could get one at any hospital and be home for supper.”
“Could've been for implanting the Cortex device,” Ariadne suggested.
“Could be,” La Pesadilla said. “We ain't here to speculate, we just give you the information.”
“Aaaaand,” Galaxy-sweater reached the end of her list, “one Quantum Shift Generator. Weird little devices, designed for the Shop-n-Go corporation. They had this idea for expanding to the colonial moons that they could just build a single store interior which all of their storefronts would lead into, that way they could have a dozen stores in a bio-dome but only pay one set of overworked employees.”
“Wonder why that got banned.” Ariadne smirked.
“If you're thinkin' it's some worker's rights whatever, you're wrong,” La Pesadilla grumbled, pouring herself another mug of wine from a bottle that had been conveniently located next to the mug on the table. “It's because all the exterior doors led to the same interior, but they ain't give you the same courtesy on the way out.”
“What she's trying to say,” Tank-top said, placing her weight on the ground and reaching for a nearby bottle of water, “is that people would attempt to leave the store only to find themselves coming out of the wrong one. You could end up 15 miles across town in the 40 seconds it took you to buy an iced tea and a candy bar.”
“Would've made a great public transit system if there was some way to predict which storefront you'd come out of,” Galaxy-sweater offered.
“That's all we've got,” La Pesadilla said. “Where's the rest of my money?”
“Now, hang on,” Galaxy-sweater said, easing herself off the couch, “these girls paid good money and we have got one more thing. Been meaning to get rid of it anyway.”
She ambled over to a bookshelf, grabbed a small, shabby-looking paperback, ripped the back cover clean off, and handed it to Ariadne. “They dropped this in our mailslot back when they were still pretending to be Christian. Got a picture of the Zealot on the back. Might help.”
La Pesadilla jabbed her cane towards the closed door. “Now, get out of my house and put that money in my account.”
Ariadne and Pilar put down their half-finished lemonades, more than glad to not have to finish drinking them, and walked towards the door. As they exited, they heard La Pesadilla mumble, “and so help me if that elevator is working.” The door closed behind them and they immediately heard it lock.
In the elevator ride down to the first floor, Ariadne looked at the laminated cover she'd been handed. The photograph was of a white man, perhaps in his 40s, with squinting, intense eyes, a full but neatly trimmed gray beard, a straight, pointed nose, and a wide-brimmed black hat.
She felt uneasy and turned the book over. Something about him, something she couldn't quite place but knew very few others would see, hit upsettingly close to home. She didn't look at it again for the rest of the trip back.
Chapter 8: Chapter 8 -- The Lie
“So where is this guy?” Backflip asked, navigating the shuttle towards the barrier. Just before they reached it, she stopped and waited for an answer.
“Last I heard,” Sweettalk explained, “he was running a real estate grift. He poses as an exterminator offering a free estimate to gain access to a house. While he’s checking a crawlspace or basement, he quietly releases a couple hundred ants and convinces them they need to leave town for a week while the infestation is cleared out. Course, the ants only take about 20 minutes to clear out. While the homeowners are out of town, he changes into a realtor’s outfit, slaps an agency sign in the front, and puts a posting online about how a crazy realtor is willing to sell the property as-is for 10% of the market price, an offer too good to question. Some greedy house flipper makes an offer and forks over 20,000 credits for a fake deed. He vanishes and the homeowners come home to the ‘new owner’ trying to renovate their kitchen. They call the extermination company, they call the real estate agency, find that nobody ever heard of the guy who sold their house, and he walks away with a hefty sum of credits and without a trace.”
“I meant, where is he, like, geographically,” Backflip sighed. “like, not 'what’s he up to,’ but like, what direction should I be pointing the spaceship.'”
“Oh,” Sweettalk said. “Head towards Mars, he should be deep in Wagoner territory. Cynwyd Newydd.”
There was a brief silence as Backflip set a course and started to maneuver the ship through the barrier. “Not the smartest grift, I mean, what if the people don’t agree to leave their house for a week?”
“Then he’s only out the cost of an exterminator costume, and a bright yellow blazer, a sign, and a box of ants,” Sweettalk explained. “Most people will probably say no, but he only needs one person to say yes to make a profit.” Ghostrunner smirked.
“What if nobody makes an offer?” Backflip asked, genuinely curious.
“He waits until the homeowners come home and collects a small fee for clearing out the ants. He makes a profit either way, and I’d bet he probably makes a copy of the house key too.”
Backflip looked confused. “Why?”
Ghostrunner piped up, startling everybody, most of whom had never heard her speak before. “To sell, a few months down the road. Some burglar buys it for a thousand credits, then makes ten times that selling the stuff they stole from the house.”
“Sounds like a real charmer.” Backflip said, shrugging. The ship moved clear of the barrier, and began to pick up speed as it coasted towards Mars. “Why exactly are we going to him again?”
“You don’t think someone like that could have some expertise in how to get into a secure location?” Sweettalk offered.
“Fair,” Backflip replied, setting the autopilot and standing to face the rest of her squadron, “I just think that—”
Deathsbane’s guilt finally got the best of her and she spoke up, in her own voice, cutting off whatever insightful thought Backflip was about to share.
“I’m sorry, you guys, I lied to you.”
“Sasha?!” Backflip’s voice broke in surprise.
Sweettalk let out an exasperated groan. “You couldn’t have held it in until we were out of sight of the station?”
“I don’t like lying!” Sasha sighed apologetically, “We’re past the point of no return now, we don’t have to keep it up!”
“How did—” Backflip began, “I mean— you look just like her!”
“Fastwing,” Sasha replied, “she made me up to look like this. Aside from me and Sweettalk, she’s the only one who knew. I’m so sorry—”
“I knew,” Ghostrunner said as a matter of fact, and popped her bubblegum for effect.
This took both Sasha and Sweettalk aback.
“How?” Sweettalk asked.
“Figured it out somewhere around your little fake spat. The real Spacebreather would’ve decked her.”
“Why didn’t you say something on the station?” Sasha asked.
“Because I knew you before all that nonsense with Weaver,” Ghostrunner explained. Backflip still seemed shocked, mostly at the deception, but partially because she’d never heard Ghostrunner speak this much. “You’ve always been laid back, relaxed, good under pressure. Now, Pilar won’t let you off the ship and you’re wound so tight you could eat a lump of coal and poop out a diamond. Once I knew what you were doing, it wasn’t a huge leap to figure out why you were doing it. Figured I could help release all this tension by keeping my mouth shut.”
“Wow,” Sasha said.
“We’re not mad,” Backflip said, carefully considering her words, “at least, I’m not … I’m just … I don’t want to be in trouble, or I would’ve snuck you out myself, you know?”
“Look,” Sweettalk explained, “that’s why we had to trick you. Now, as far as Spacebreather is concerned, the only people who disobeyed her orders are me and Fastwing.”
“And me,” Sasha added dreadfully.
“Well, yeah,” Sweettalk agreed, “but I intend to take all the blame.”
The trip to Mars was not exactly short, but it didn’t take very long either. They spent most of the journey composing an apology message to send back to Tripwire and Lefthook and stuffing a small rucksack with 100-credit notes. The security measures around Cynwyd Newydd were downright lax compared to those surrounding New Moyamensing, and their ship was guided through the bio-dome’s airlock without so much as an ID check. Sasha slung the bag of credit-notes over her shoulder and the girls disembarked.
The whole town of Cynwyd Newydd was exhausting to look at. Their entire economy was, as far as the girls could tell, driven by overpriced grocery stores which advertised themselves as “ALL NATURAL EARTH-GROWN PRODUCE,” and trendy bars which all strove to be the most quirky and unique establishment on the block while still somehow managing to be effectively indistinguishable from one another.
The stickers plastered on almost every storefront proudly proclaimed “TRITON SECURITY SYSTEMS” in garish yellow letters, followed by a slogan that could frankly only be appealing to the most paranoid of bigots, “KEEPING THE NEIGHBORHOOD OUT.”
Both the businesses and the people seemed to want to walk the line between vintage and cutting-edge. They all had the newest electronic gadgets, kept in expensive cases that were designed to make them look like the electronic gadgets their parents had carried. They wore brand-new, expensive clothing that had been designed specifically to look like they’d inherited them from a deceased grandparent who happened to wear their exact size.
Everyone hated Cynwyd Newydd, including, it seemed, the people who lived there, who all constantly complained about the rich kids from Earth who were moving to the area and making it less cool, without ever realizing that they’d just described themselves. Despite this feeling, they also never managed to empathize with the people who’d grown up there, who now also hated it because it was full of rich kids from Earth who’d moved there on a whim to find themselves while living off seemingly bottomless trust funds, always sending away for imported goods from Earth rather than patronizing the small stores on their block, which usually ended up driving the stores out of business.
Of course, the rich kids saw this as a plus, an open storefront meant they could finally use their parents’ money to open that trendy new bar they’d been dreaming of. It would be different from all the other bars on the block, they always thought, and they were always wrong.
It wasn’t difficult to find their destination. Sweettalk showed a handful of people a photograph of her contact, and they directed her to a gray concrete building, one which couldn’t possibly look less like the garish yellow signs in every storefront if you had paid it to, with a sign reading “Triton Securities.”
There were six desks inside the one-room building, and their contact sat at the second closest one to the door. He was twenty years old, white, dark-haired, clean-shaven, wore a pressed white shirt with a pastel green tie and seemed to be perpetually smirking. His nameplate read “PRESCOTT CAIN – SECURITY SPECIALIST.”
He looked up at the four rather rough-looking girls walking towards him, and when he saw Sweettalk, his face broke into a gleeful, almost proud smile.
“Ming! To what do I owe thi—”
He didn’t get to finish this thought because Sweettalk punched him in the face so hard he fell out of his chair.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9 -- The Bastard
Four or five other gangly-looking boys at other cubicles stood up to observe the scene. They did not move to intercept the strange young woman who'd just physically assaulted one of their employees. Clearly this was not a particularly competent security force.
“Zee!” Sasha gasped.
“Relax,” Sweettalk whispered back, “I know how to handle this guy.”
A high-pitched “Jesus Christ!!” escaped Prescott's mouth involuntarily. “Some way to greet your big brother after four years!”
“Stop telling people you're my brother,” Sweettalk hissed. Deathsbane and Backflip each had a hand on one of her elbows, which reminded her not to hit him again. Ghostrunner, on the other hand, was chuckling quietly to herself.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, “I think you broke my son-of-a-bitching jaw.”
“Sweettalk, can you fill us in?” Backflip asked, “I mean, we didn't come all this way just to punch this guy, did we?” This was intended as a rhetorical question, but Backflip glanced over at Sasha to confirm.
“Who the hell is 'Sweettalk?'” Prescott got to his feet and began straightening his shirt, which had come untucked in the fall from his office chair.
“We were hoping to enlist your help, asswipe.” Sweettalk snarled.
“Well, you've certainly got a strong initial pitch.” He scoffed, still rubbing his jaw. “You know, I'm going to see a doctor about this. You'll be receiving a bill.”
“Oh, for Christ's— Sasha, can you see if I broke his jaw if it'll move this along?” Sweettalk pushed her forward slightly.
Sasha immediately reached to feel for a break in his jaw.
“Get your hands off of me,” he said, attempting to swat her hand away.
“I'm a doctor,” she said simply, and moved his arm out of the way with one hand while inspecting the point of impact with the other. “Wow, you are … incredibly weak.”
Prescott visually scanned Sasha, who was still wearing Pilar's tattered clothes. “You're a doctor? Where's your degree from, the school of hard knocks?”
“Your jaw's fine,” Sasha said simply, stepping back with moderate disgust at the disrespect she'd been shown, “Zee, hit him again.”
Sweettalk moved to follow this instruction. Prescott shouted “WAIT” and flinched so hard that he accidentally tripped backwards over his own chair and landed on the floor again. Sasha's confidence that he could be of some help had reached an all-time low. He attempted to get back into a standing position but decided it wasn't worth it and sat back in his chair, hoping he would not be once again punched out of it. “What do you people want from me?”
“We need to get into a secure facility,” Sweettalk explained, “and nobody's better at worming their way in where they're not wanted than you.”
Prescott looked indignant. “I'll have you know I'm a legitimate businessman now.”
Ghostrunner looked around the threadbare office and chuckled quietly to herself that Prescott could maintain any illusion of legitimacy in his business.
“Triton Securities, eh?” Sweettalk asked mockingly. “Aren't you usually in the business of getting past security systems?”
“Exactly,” Prescott explained, “who better to patch the holes in someone's fence than someone who's spent their life sneaking through them? We've got new businesses opening up in the bio-dome every day and despite some promising revitalization, there's been something of a crime wave, so for a small fee, my company installs alarm systems, sophisticated locking mechanisms, everything a business needs to keep their assets safe. There's not a secure system in this dome that we didn't have a hand in.”
“I don't buy it,” Sweettalk said, “you never get paid just once. What's the scam?”
“No scam,” he replied, trying a little too hard to sound genuine, “like I said, I'm a legitimate businessman now.”
Ghostrunner once again snickered at his use of the word “legitimate.”
“That’s a shame. It'd be in our interests to know we could get past the system,” Sasha said sarcastically, “we might have paid, I don't know, five hundred thousand, maybe a million credits for that kind of information.”
She dramatically dropped the unzipped rucksack on his desk, revealing the thick wads of 100-credit notes within.
One of Prescott's coworkers overheard this and stood up to leave the room. The rest of the employees followed suit, all giving Prescott a knowing nod as they passed his desk.
“I'm listening,” Prescott said seriously when the room was clear.
Sasha continued with her spiel, “Oh, but you're a legitimate businessman, right? I mean, we would've paid top dollar if there was—”
“Drop the act,” Prescott urgently barked, eager for the bag of untraceable bills on his desk, “it's clear we all know the real score.”
“The Red God Life Center. You get a quarter million up front if you tell us how to get in,” Sweettalk explained, “and the other 750,000 when you get us back out.”
Prescott considered this and came to the conclusion that it was simply too much money to refuse. A cool million credits was easily five times more than the price of any security system they'd ever sold. Hell, he thought, he could take the down payment and run and still come out with more than he’d make selling security to ten of these trendy bars. He reached for the bag and Sweettalk pulled it out of his reach.
“Give us something to prove you can get us in,” Sweettalk demanded.
Ghostrunner tapped on her watch, seemingly to indicate that this proposition would not be on the table for much longer.
He sighed. “Our security systems are absolutely uncrackable if you don’t have the key, that much is true. What we don’t tell our clients is that they all have a back door: Enter a special code and the whole system shuts off. We keep the key to that door and sell it to petty thieves for a fraction of what they'll make selling the shit they stole. It even falsifies the internal records to make it look like the system wasn't properly armed at the time of the robbery, so law enforcement chalks it up to user error and our good reputation isn't tarnished.”
Sweettalk grinned, but still managed to convey that she was disgusted by him. “Supply and demand, you create both. The businesses wouldn't need your security systems if you weren't giving cat burglars the keys to the kingdom. The robbers wouldn't need to buy your help if you hadn't installed those systems. It's the perfect scam! You're totally redundant, and yet, you get paid anyway!”
“I prefer the term 'vertical integration' to 'scam,' but that's neither here nor there. I'm paid to keep the robbers out and, separately, to get the robbers in. There's a lot of money in working both sides of the law, you know. Now, give me the cash and I can give you a dossier on how to get in, and out, of the Red God compound without incident.”
Ghostrunner cracked a wide smile and tapped her watch again. A flickering hologram depicting Prescott's face appeared several inches above the watch's face, and spoke in a tinny voice:
“I'm paid to keep the robbers out and, separately, to get the robbers in. There's a lot of money in working both sides of the law, you know.”
Prescott's eyes widened in panic. He was a professional grifter, he should have seen this coming. It was a rookie mistake, being blinded to the risks by his own greed in light of an offer he couldn't afford to refuse. “How long were you recording?”
“Started right about when my associate tapped on her watch,” Sasha smirked, “and I believe the recording cut off just before you would've incriminated us.”
“It won't hold up in court,” Prescott pleaded.
“It doesn't need to,” Sasha rolled her eyes, “it just needs to get the law looking in your direction. This won't get you a conviction, but it will get the cops a warrant, and once they know what they're looking for, they'll find that backdoor in no time.”
“Which is to say nothing of the court of public opinion. I don’t think an angry mob waits for a warrant, do they?” Sweettalk smiled while closing the rucksack and taking a little too much delight in the shame and embarrassment in his eyes as the money slipped away from him. “That little recording is on its way to our good friend Tripwire as we speak. Tripwire has already received a message instructing her to forward it to the Sheriff's office in 48 hours if I don't personally tell her, face-to-face, that you've cooperated with our every demand. That means if you harm us, hinder us, or attempt to warn the Red God organization, you will be exposed, arrested, and convicted. Oh, and you won't have any patsies this time, your coworkers haven't been implicated and I'm sure they'll deny any knowledge of this scheme even if you've been caught.”
“You'll be offering your services Pro Bono,” Sasha explained, “or you'll be in a jail cell by week's end. Call it a 'friends and family discount' if you like.”
Sweettalk laughed derisively. “We're not related and I don't like him. Call it blackmail. Now, let's see that dossier.”
Prescott sighed, defeated, and called her a derogatory name which was, frankly, unfair regardless of the fact that she was extorting him.
Sweettalk grinned ear to ear. “Yeah, well, the feeling's mutual.”
Chapter 10: Chapter 10 — The Locker
“Do you understand why you're being held here?” The Zealot asked a shaking ViLaz. “Answer me, child.”
“I …” She began, but hesitated.
“It's because you are weak,” The Zealot explained.
“I am weak,” she replied.
“The Red God told you what you had to do, didn't he?”
ViLaz didn't respond, and hoped in vain that this would suffice. The Zealot somehow managed to make his already perpetually squinting eyes even narrower.
“How awful can his request have been?” The Zealot sneered. “What could be so unthinkable that it would take precedence over the return of our glorious lord?”
ViLaz blushed in shame and hung her head.
“Do you think you're greater than the Red God?” The Zealot asked sternly
“No, it's just—” ViLaz started.
“Don't end that sentence,” the Zealot snapped. “Either you're going to say 'No, I'll do as I'm told' or the answer is 'Yes, I think I'm better than the Red God.'”
ViLaz fell silent again.
“Which,” he continued, “is it?”
“I'm—” She hesitated, and saw the anger in her father's eyes. “I'm afraid.”
The Zealot sighed, annoyed. “Afraid of what, child?”
“He lives in a prison,” she said quietly, “it's horrible there, he wants me to live there so he can come out here.”
The Zealot furrowed his brow. “Then, do it.”
“It's awful, I—” she began.
“I don't understand your hesitance,” the Zealot made his voice sound comforting, which did little to mask how terrible his words were, “you don't hate the Red God, do you? Surely, you wouldn't let your own trivial comfort stand in the way of his glorious cause!”
“N—” she hesitated again, “no, I wouldn't.”
The Zealot smiled, but there was no love or joy in it. “So, you'll do it?”
“I … don't know …”
The Zealot's smile faded. “You'd allow his torment to continue so that you can enjoy his place in our world.” He wore a well-rehearsed look of hurt on his face. “I'm a failure as a parent.”
ViLaz felt a pang of guilt at this, and then a flash of anger. “No,” she said, “you're a failure as a vessel.”
The Zealot's nostril twitched. “What did you just say?”
“You were supposed to be the one who went into his prison, not me!” She snapped. “Why couldn't you do it, huh? Too WEAK?”
“Hush, girl,” the Zealot hissed.
“No, YOU hush! Sick old man couldn't handle the Red God's glorious mission?”
“I said, be quiet!” Something seemed wrong, as though his edges were blurring out. ViLaz chalked it up to the adrenaline rush, she'd never shown this much resistance to anything before and it was making her head throb. She was literally seeing red, which up until this point, she'd thought was just a figure of speech.
“You know, you don't look that sick to me at all!” She continued, “You're probably just too scared! Needed someone stronger to do your job, like a little girl! Isn't that right, old man?” For the first time in her life, ViLaz raised her hands to shove the Zealot away from herself.
“I said STOP!” The Zealot struck her across the face with a closed fist and she crumpled to the ground. Dizzy and disoriented, she faded out of consciousness.
Two red-robed Acolytes rushed in to find her knocked out by the Zealot's assault. She was alone in the room, and her body slowly rose to its feet and stood at attention.
“This didn't happen with the others,” she said to the Acolytes. Her voice was the same, but her cadence had changed. Her voice sounded the way it always did when she gave sermons, slow, even, and ever-so-folksy.
“No, my lord, she's the first to— uh, this is unprecedented, your eminence.”
The Red God had taken command of her body before, and it was not a pleasant experience for her. She remained conscious, but her body moved of its own accord. The words that escaped her mouth surprised even her. She could feel herself saying and doing everything the Red God wanted her to, but she couldn't seem to wrest control back from him.
“Keep the others on ice,” the Red God said through her mouth. “I might need them if our girl ViLaz isn't cooperative.”
“Yes, my lord,” one of the Acolytes replied.
“And,” the Red God added, “Bring me a mirror. I've got to put the fear of God in this child.”
The acolytes brought out a small silver hand-mirror and placed it in front of her face. It was not her own reflection that stared back at her, but the fiery eyes of the Red God himself.
“You want your little life so bad?” He said, staring daggers in her, “Feel free to ride shotgun with me. But you will take your place in that prison if you know what's good for you. Now, once I'm out, I can set it up so you'll be in your little castle forever, dreaming away eternity in never-ending bliss, but while I'm in here, the only relief I can offer you is a fast death. Acolytes?”
“Yes, my lord?”
“If I lose control of this body again, do not simply return it to its chamber. Destroy it and any unlawful occupants.”
ViLaz was terrified. The Red God had always been somewhat awesome, in the classical sense of the word, but he couldn't threaten to kill her. He needed her alive to escape his prison!
Unfortunately, he could hear this thought. “Don't be Naive. I have other ways of escaping, they're just … much less pleasant for you. At least this way, you get to live. I hope to hear a 'thank you' for that.”
Thanks and praise be unto the Red God, bringer of life in the lifeless, sustenance in the endless desert, true and only salvation of the human race.
“You're welcome,” he smiled, “Now, I'll be able to maintain control of this body for a little under a week before the portal wanes. After a week, my acolytes will ask me a question which I can answer and you cannot. Should they receive the correct response, they will know the body is under my control, they will spare it, and you will be rewarded. Should they receive no answer, you will be incinerated.”
ViLaz considered giving in right there, but something in the back of her head told her not to bow to his demands. Her fight and flight instincts were doing battle in her head.
“No need to decide now,” the Red God said, smiling wickedly. “We have almost a week left together to find our way to the proper path!”
Chapter 11: Chapter 11 -- The Inevitable
Sweettalk, Backflip, Ghostrunner, and Deathsbane sat in the back of a vehicle that was marked “armored,” apparently just for show. It was essentially a regular cargo van, once you got past the flashy outer shell. From the sleek, impressive exterior, you might guess it was capable of long-distance space flight, but in truth it had an average minimum-hover of approximately fourteen inches with nothing onboard, and could push that to four feet in a pinch, albeit only for a few seconds. It definitely couldn’t withstand the vacuum of space without bursting at the seams. In truth, very few interplanetary spacecraft came equipped with an adjustable sunroof.
The girls were packed in so tight that they couldn’t comfortably carry their weapons on their hips. Each of them had their blaster resting in their lap, with their hand noncommittally resting on the handle in case things went south. Sasha had the rucksack filled with counterfeit bills slung loosely over her shoulder.
Prescott, resigned to working for the luxury of not being reported to the authorities, was explaining how they were going to get into the Life Center. Ghostrunner visibly had headphones on over her hood, which Deathsbane thought might be irresponsible. What if she missed something?
“The cover is that you’re being brought in as security consultants,” Prescott explained smugly. “You’re reformed criminals who are being brought in to identify any vulnerabilities so that I can patch them.”
“Reformed?” Backflip scoffed indignantly.
“Okay, well, it doesn’t need to be true,” Prescott continued, “it’s just to get you into the building. You’ll be inspecting the facility in order to audit our protocols. I assume you’ve got some means of quietly recording the tour so you can get the information you need?”
“Is that a joke?” Ghostrunner asked, and gestured at the watch they had used to trap him less than an hour ago.
This surprised Deathsbane, who believed Ghostrunner to be unable to hear them. She wondered how often Ghostrunner kept up an inattentive facade when she was actually taking in every detail.
“Great,” Prescott said, “the whole thing will be simple, we can get you in and out without suspicion, and you can tell your little friend not to report me.”
“I think we’ll all be happy when we no longer need anything from you,” Sweettalk sneered.
“You know, I really didn’t want to have to skip town again,” Prescott said in the rear-view mirror, smirking at Sweettalk as though he was nostalgic. “I still haven’t felt safe on the streets of Callisto ever since last time, but you remember that, eh, sis?”
Sweettalk started to lunge forward as if to hit him, and then remembered he was driving and decided it wasn’t worth it. “Stop calling me sis!”
“Why does he keep calling you that?” Backflip asked quietly, but not quite quietly enough to avoid Prescott hearing. “I mean, I was in the orphanage with you … you never had an adoptive family, and it’s, uh, obviously not biological.”
“Hey, I resent that!” Prescott laughed.
“Cram it,” Sweettalk said flatly.
“Personally, I think we look a lot alike!” He smiled at her, and she had to once again suppress the urge to punch his lights out and cause a crash that would kill or maim everyone in the vehicle.
“You have been told to cram it!” Sasha snapped. “Sorry, Zee. This guy is annoying as hell.”
“No apologies necessary,” Sweettalk replied, “nicer than the response I had in mind. Backflip, the reason he calls me ‘Sis’ is because he used to make me pose as his little sister and hurt myself in stores so that he could be the concerned big brother who gets a nice little package of hush money under the table in exchange for not suing.”
“He had you doing slip-and-falls?” Backflip looked somewhat queasy. “I’m sorry, we met when you were thirteen, how old was you when he had you hurting yourself for money?”
“Younger than thirteen,” Sweettalk replied grimly. Prescott still seemed to be grinning.
“You know,” he said, “I think about what happened last time a lot. I bet you rolled over on me, real quick, eh? Had to leave Callisto. Lucky for me Mars has some loose extradition laws!”
“Didn’t someone tell you to cram it?” Sweettalk muttered.
“Wouldn’t be hard, I mean, I know of a treasure trove so valuable that a grocery bag full of its contents could buy me a new identity halfway across the system. I think this time I’ll start over on Titan, or maybe one of those mining communities in the Kupier belt!” He continued.
“What do you mean, this time?” Sasha asked.
“No!” Sweettalk didn’t need an answer. She’d already figured out what was happening. “No, no no no, not again.”
“No hard feelings?” Prescott said smugly.
“You bastard,” Sweettalk hissed, “We trusted you!”
Prescott laughed. “After all we’ve been through?”
Moving swiftly, she unbuckled her seatbelt and leapt across the back of the van, knocking into both Ghostrunner and Backflip on the way.
“Zee, what are you—” Sasha started, but was cut off as Sweettalk planted a kiss on her lips.
“I’m sorry …” Sweettalk trailed off, and wrenched the bag of cash out of Sasha’s arms.
“Hey!” Sasha shouted after her, as Sweettalk kicked out the van’s sunroof and slid out it.
The van screeched to a halt and Sweettalk hit the ground running. She had the bag of cash slung over her shoulder and was attempting to stuff something into her coat as she disappeared down an alleyway.
“Zee!” Sasha screamed after her, attempting to undo her seatbelt.
“My weapon …? My gun is gone!” said a panicked Backflip.
“Mine too,” Ghostrunner said, patting herself down just to be sure.
Prescott continued laughing and shouted out the window at Sweettalk, “Hey, sis, don’t be like that! We’ve got company coming over!”
It was at this exact moment that Deathsbane noticed the flashing red-and-blue of a police vehicle approaching behind them.
“You called the cops,” she muttered, “You bastard, you’re going down for this.” She continued to struggle against her seatbelt, but she’d be spotted and captured for sure if she attempted to flee the van at this point.
“Ha! Did you really think I wouldn’t have a bug-out plan? I’ll be gone by the time they finish putting you in cuffs. They can search the whole system and never find me.” He tapped a button on his watch and spoke clearly into it. “REQUESTING EMERGENCY TELEPORT, I’VE BEEN MADE.”
“Loud and clear, boss. Receiving pad primed, you can make the jump when ready.”
The back of the van opened and four police officers with mirrored visors obscuring their face began to remove the girls from their seats. They all knew better than to resist arrest.
“This is them, officers! Ariadne and her crew!” The cuffs clicked around their wrists. Prescott waved at them, smiled, and then disappeared in a flash of light.
“Codename Ariadne,” one officer said in a gruff voice as he guided Sasha to the back of a police car, “you are under arrest for grand larceny, aggravated assault, piracy, fraud, conspiracy to commit, and vandalism. You are not bound to answer any questions or give any statements. Should you choose to do so anyway, anything you say can be used as evidence against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, should you be unable to provide one, a defender will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as I’ve read them to you?”
Sasha simply replied, “I’m not Ariadne.”
“Well, you sure look like the composite sketch,” The officer said and closed the police vehicle’s door, locking her away next to Backflip, who looked like she was about to be sick, and Ghostrunner, whose entire face was visible and seemed devoted to remaining expressionless.
The situation finally clicked with Sasha and she felt a twist in her stomach.
I can’t believe she left me, she thought. The car pulled away.
How could she do this?
Chapter 12: Chapter 12 -- The Worst-Case Scenario
“Honey, we’re home!” Ariadne shouted as she and Spacebreather disembarked from her shuttle. “We have information and we need some synthesis!”
Alicia, Tripwire, Lefthook, and Taryn were all waiting in the docking bay for them, looking somewhat concerned.
“Promise you won’t be mad?” Tripwire offered nervously.
Of course, neither Pilar nor Ariadne would make such a promise, and it’s a good thing they didn’t, as Pilar had never been angrier than she was when she found out Sasha had spirited away from the station.
“Please,” Alicia said calmly as Pilar kicked a crate across the room in frustration, breaking it into three pieces, “don’t blame yourself for this, there was no stopping—”
“I don’t blame myself!!” Pilar shouted, picking up a rather expensive-looking vase from the crate she’d kicked apart, and smashing it against the ground. “I blame you!”
“Querida, that's—” Ariadne started reassuringly, but Pilar cut her off.
“That’s what, unfair? She’s the one who helped her sneak out! She’s the one who disguised her as me! This is on her!”
“No, it’s not,” Taryn insisted, “It was Sasha’s decision.”
“It’s okay, Taryn,” Alicia said flatly. “This was on me, I’m the one who helped her.”
“Well, then, it’s on me too,” Taryn replied angrily. “We all thought she should be allowed to go in the field. We all saw how miserable she was in here, if she said she wanted to go, there isn’t one of us here who wouldn’t have helped her.”
This struck something in Pilar. She was still angry, but something about hearing how her sister felt like a prisoner snapped her back to reality and made her feel a pang of guilt.
There was silence for a moment.
“I’m willing to take full responsibility for this,” Alicia said calmly, “but I need you to remain calm when I tell you this next part.”
Pilar once again made no such promise, and almost broke her hand punching the wall of the shuttle when she found out the station had lost contact with Sasha and her rogue crew, who were now presumed captured.
When she calmed down a bit, she pointed at Tripwire. “You. I want the coordinates for Sasha’s last known location programmed into my shuttle five minutes ago.”
Tripwire scrambled into the shuttle in the hopes of not making the situation worse.
Pilar pointed somewhat aggressively at Alicia. “You. We’re going to need to put a pin in how furious I am with you. We have information on the life centers and we’ll need all the help we can get in order to mount a rescue.”
Alicia bit her lip and nodded.
Pilar then pointed at Taryn. “And YOU. Took a lot for someone as young as you to stand up to me like that for the sake of your crewmates. Me and Ariadne will have to have a talk about your name.”
Taryn would have smiled under any other circumstances.
Pilar was, at the moment, too anxious to pilot the shuttle, and Alicia was poring over the information they’d retrieved from La Pesadilla, so Ariadne took the driver’s seat. Of course, she was just as anxious as Pilar, but she put it aside because her hands were a little bit steadier and Spacebreather was much better at panicking.
“So, I think it’s pretty obvious what the immersion pods and Cortex implants are for,” Alicia offered.
“Let’s pretend it’s not,” Pilar snapped, “Sorry, my brain is all over the place right now. I’m going to need you to assume nothing is obvious.”
“Okay,” Alicia replied calmly, trying to strike a balance between being accommodating and condescending in the hopes of not getting Pilar even angrier at her. “Well, it’s a cult. In the old days, and I’m talking really old, they would prey on people who crave structure and ritual, they convince those people that they’re better off with someone else making all the decisions for them, then convince them that any of their loved ones who’ve got concerns are actually the cause of all their suffering.”
“And how do the pods and implants factor into it?” Pilar asked, trying equally hard to be patient, as she did technically ask for a long-winded explanation.
“Well, see, eventually they tried to make it seem more rational and scientific. They introduced fancy-looking machines that they claimed measured mental stress, or the despair of the soul, or some other intangible quality that no court could technically prove they weren’t measuring. They’d scare people into joining their practice by showing them hard data that seemed to prove they’d be better off in the cult. I think this is something similar. The pods and the implants would both allow the cult’s leadership to do all sorts of things. Show them visions of their god, convince them their dead loved ones can’t get into heaven unless they sign up, encode their brain with the irresistible urge to wear ugly orange robes. In fact, they wouldn’t even need to go to all the trouble of exploiting a certain group of people. They could program the appropriate psychological profile, with the brainwashing already done, onto a disk and then just pop it into people’s heads. Anyone who agreed to their audit would be clay in their hands as soon as the machine turned on.”
“That’d explain why nobody ever seems to come out of the Life Centers,” Pilar looked slightly confused, “but then, why both? You could do that with the just pods or just the implants, and since the implants need to be surgically installed, it doesn’t seem all that practical, you know?”
“Again, I’m not sure this is what they’re doing. I’m just saying, it’s something they could be used for. I agree, the implants aren’t practical for large-scale cult programming, but they could be used for a more direct form of mind control.”
“How do you mean?” Pilar asked.
“Well,” Alicia continued, “we’ve considered the possibility that maybe our impostor Ariadne might not be pulling the strings?”
“And the quantum shift generator?” Pilar asked.
“Still not sure. I’d guess it has something to do with the life centers. I mean, the impostor usually seems to be in two places at once, with the right tweaking, a quantum shift generator could make that possible. Or…” Alicia saw the look on Pilar’s face and instantly regretted beginning this sentence. “…some of the old-school cults actually had prison ships so they could detain people who wanted to leave. A quantum shift generator could be used to freeze a person in time so you don’t have to worry about supplying them with food and water.”
Pilar looked horrified. “We have to get my sister out of there…”
“We will,” Alicia started, “just—”
“Don’t,” Pilar snapped. “You and I… we’re not there yet.”
“That’s it,” Alicia sighed, “I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to do this, but…”
Alicia pulled a small circular hologram projector out of her pocket and attached earbuds to it.
“I’ve made a call. Hopefully they can talk some sense into you,” Alicia said, placing the projector on the table. “She’s on hold, just tap the crystal.”
Alicia quietly went up to the cockpit and took the controls from a very relieved Ariadne, who walked back to be with Spacebreather.
Spacebreather had the earbuds in both her ears, listening to the woman in the hologram that Ariadne recognized immediately.
She looked a lot like Alicia, although her demeanor was slightly more relaxed. Her hair was long and twisted into colorful locs, and she had a faintly visible scar that started on her forehead, crossed her left eye and eyebrow, and landed at the top of a prominent cheekbone.
She was talking quickly, and from having spent so much time with Alicia’s younger sister Ariana Baltimore, that the speech she was giving was probably sarcastic and full of borderline irrelevant tangents.
Ariadne wished she could hear what Baltimore was saying. She was something of an expert in sisterly conflict. For some incredibly complex reasons that frankly don’t need to be recounted again, Alicia was forced to fake her death and disappeared for ten years, and she and Ariana had spent the last several years working to patch up the damage this had done to their relationship.
Pilar was listening intently, shaking almost imperceptibly. Her responses to Baltimore’s speech were mostly nods and quiet utterances of “mhm” and “okay.” At the beginning, she seemed angry, but her expression quickly softened until she looked sad, and then horribly guilty. By the end, both Baltimore and Pilar were crying.
“Thank you,” Pilar said to her.
Baltimore said something back.
“I will,” Pilar responded, and unplugged the headphones so Ariadne could hear.
Another woman walked into the holographic display. This was Marisol Beam-Spacebreather, Baltimore’s wife and Pilar’s adoptive older sister. Her brown hair was longer than the last time they’d seen her.
“Hi Pilar! Hi Ariadne!” Beam cheered. “We hear you’re on a dangerous mission!”
“I wasn’t super listening when Alicia described it to me but as I understand it, you’re trying to help the President of Mars get his confidence back?” Baltimore asked while maintaining a totally straight face.
“Not even close,” Ariadne grinned.
“And Mars doesn’t have a—” Pilar started, but was cut off by Baltimore.
“I know, I’m just being a jerk. Just be safe, okay?” Baltimore said. “And remember what I told you.”
“And come back alive,” Beam quipped, “I mean, ideally. We want to bring the twins out to the station on Halloween weekend and it’d probably be better if you two weren’t dead, so please try to make it an easy mission!”
“We’ll do our best,” Pilar smiled, and wiped away a tear.
“What’d she say?” Ariadne asked.
“She gave me a lot to think about, and thought about a few things for me so I didn’t have to,” Pilar did not elaborate, and Ariadne did not pry further.
Ariadne and Pilar both intended to fulfill their promise to remain safe when they stepped off the ship. They gave Alicia instructions on what to do should they not make it back in time for the rendezvous, and attempted to break into the Life Center closest to Sasha’s last known location.
It was almost too easy to break into. Seemingly, whoever was in charge of activating the security system had forgotten to do so, and despite the late hour, there was not a night watchman in sight.
Ariadne and Spacebreather quietly scanned for some kind of dungeon or holding cell, and after observing two barracks where rows of acolytes slept in bunk beds, a small kitchenette that seemed to be devoid of all seasonings, a recreation room that consisted of a few card tables and uncomfortably religious board games, and three separate dark rooms that had very little besides a capsule resembling a refrigerator in them, they found a large vault with the door ajar.
They silently hoped that this meant that Sasha and her rogue crew had escaped on their own. When they got inside, they found little more than dusty wooden crates, statues covered by white sheets, and shelves of books that had been there so long that, while there was no way for Ariadne to notice this, the dust mites in the pages had evolved into their own subspecies.
The only person inside was a young white man, about Ariadne’s age, with dark hair and a naturally punchable face. He was shoving various trinkets, scrolls, and volumes into a large duffel bag.
He jumped back when he noticed that anyone else was in the room at all, but when he saw Pilar’s tattoos a second later, he recognized her immediately.
“They let you out?!” Prescott said in a tone that was somewhere between a whisper, a gasp, and a scream.
“Uh … what?” Spacebreather replied.
“Do we know you?” Ariadne asked.
“Ugh, I guess if you want a job done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Prescott tapped the face of his watch several times and suddenly the silence split open as alarms rang through the air. Emergency lights switched on with a loud clunk and the vault door swung closed behind them. As easily as he’d deactivated the security, he’d switched the system back on, and the open vault door had triggered a full lockdown. He spoke loudly and clearly into his watch. “Babe, I’ve got what I need. I’m gonna need that teleport.”
“You got it,” a female voice said from the watch.
Pilar, however, moved slightly more quickly than the woman on the other end of the line. She unsheathed two of the knives strapped to her thigh and, in one move, sliced the watch from Prescott’s wrist with her right hand, knocked Prescott several feet back, pinning him against the wall, and placed the knife in her left hand against his throat. Ariadne instinctively drew her blaster and trained it on his forehead.
The watch fell onto the open duffel bag, and there was a flash of white light. The watch and the duffel bag were both gone, presumably now in the possession of whatever accomplice Prescott had been talking to.
“You blew our cover and I’ve had a really bad day,” Pilar growled at the young man who was suppressing the impulse to wet himself. “If you want to keep all your fingers you’d better be able to get us out of here. ¿Está claro?”
Prescott began to laugh nervously.
“Something funny?” Pilar let the knife press a little harder against his throat.
“You just flushed it down the toilet!” Prescott laughed wildly. “Unless you’ve got a teleport of your own, the only way out of this vault just poofed away with my nest egg.”
“Wrong answer,” Pilar shouted and, with the knife that wasn’t pressed to his throat, severed his right pinky and ring finger. The resulting scream was loud enough to drown out the alarms. “Clearly you’ve shut the security down before, so if you want this little piggy to keep eating roast beef you’d better tell us how to open that vault door.”
“That’s toes,” Ariadne shouted over the alarms and Prescott’s continuing sobs.
“What?” Pilar asked sharply.
“This Little Piggy, that’s toes, not fingers,” Ariadne explained. “Still, I’d do what she says, you’re losing a lot of blood.”
“It only opens from the outside, someone has to let us out,” Prescott whimpered.
“Try again,” Pilar hissed, and with another scream, his middle finger fell to the floor. “You’ve got 17 fingers and toes left to give me the right answer.”
“And probably some other things you’d rather not lose,” Ariadne added helpfully.
When the screams died down, Prescott managed to push a response through the tears. “I set up the security system,” he was gasping between every few words, “they know me. When they come check the vault, I can convince them this was a— surprise security, uh, audit, that you two are consultants, and that the system malfunctioned and trapped us here.”
Pilar considered this.
“P… please… don’t hurt me again,” Prescott begged.
“Right answer,” she said, and dropped him hard to the ground. He fell to his knees and attempted to wad his T-shirt around his bleeding hand.
“You… you fucking bitch…” Prescott whimpered, which prompted a flash of rage in Ariadne that manifested in her clubbing him in the eye with the butt of her pistol.
Prescott fell to the floor, unconscious.
“Sorry,” Ariadne said immediately, “Oh god, Pilar, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Pilar said back. “You just knocked him out.”
“But now we’re trapped for real,” Ariadne was trying very hard not to panic.
“Would’ve happened either way,” Pilar shrugged, and slumped back against a crate, waiting for their captors to come recover them.
“How do you figure?” Ariadne asked, really hoping to make sense of what she was being told.
“You were faster than me,” Pilar replied, “which is the only reason he’s unconscious and not dead.”
Ariadne sat down next to Pilar and waited for someone to collect them.
Chapter 13: Chapter 13 -- The Perfectly Good Explanatiom
“She’s coming back,” Sasha said.
“I want to think so too,” Backflip sounded a lot more worried, “but—”
“I don’t think she’s coming back,” Sasha demanded, “I know it for a fact.”
“Deathsbane,” Backflip lowered her voice so the police officers outside the cell couldn’t hear, “she took our guns and a backpack with 500,000 credits and ran away to save her own skin.”
“Nope,” Sasha insisted, “we’re not seeing the whole picture.”
Backflip whispered harshly, “she ditched us and let us get caught so she could get away!”
“There’s got to be something we’re missing.” Sasha shook her head. “She wouldn’t just leave me like this. I can’t believe that. I won’t.”
“You’re in denial.” Backflip sighed.
“You know, you can be a real child sometimes,” Sasha snapped.
Backflip looked hurt.
“I’m sorry,” Sasha said halfheartedly.
“It’s whatever,” Backflip crossed her arms and looked to the side. Sasha was right, technically speaking Backflip was only fourteen years old and was, by most definitions of the word, a child. However, Sasha was not being technical, she was being intentionally hurtful, and it wasn’t, as Backflip claimed, “whatever.”
“No, I’m actually sorry,” Sasha said, this time sincerely, and moved over next to Backflip. “We’ve both had a pretty bad day, and I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”
Backflip grunted to indicate that the apology was accepted, but since she was actually a child in exactly the way Sasha meant, she still continued to maintain an air of grouchiness despite not officially being upset anymore.
“Plus, it’s my fault you’re in here anyway,” Sasha continued.
“How do you figure?” Backflip asked, “You’re not the one who called the cops on us, or the one who ditched us.”
“I tricked you into coming on this stupid mission because I was feeling cooped up,” Sasha shrugged.
“I knew the risks when I thought I was leaving with Spacebreather,” Backflip shrugged back.
“You’ve got to understand, Sweettalk might not be concerned with rules, but she wouldn’t throw us under the bus. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for what she did.”
“I’d love to hear it,” Backflip rolled her eyes, “I think I saw someone who could explain that booking it down an alley with all our guns and money.”
“I know it,” Ghostrunner said from the opposite corner without looking up from the stars she was drawing on her arm with a semi-permanent marker. She had been so quiet that Backflip and Sasha both jumped when she spoke, having almost forgotten she was there.
“Well, lay it on us,” Sasha said, “Not like we’ve got somewhere else to be.”
Ghostrunner continued to draw stars on her arm as she began to explain the story. Backflip and Deathsbane were both enthralled, they’d never heard Ghostrunner talk for this long before, and they allowed her to tell Sweettalk’s entire life story without interrupting.
A lot of the story was stuff they already knew. Sweettalk’s birth name was Mingxia Huang, and she was born in Xiagu, the sole colony of Saturn’s cold moon, Enceladus. The moon was too rocky and full of canyons to build a standard bio-dome on level ground, but when a team of engineers is faced with a problem, it’s a safe bet they’ll come up with a solution far more ridiculous than simply abstaining from attempting to colonize a completely inhospitable moon.
Instead of a normal hemispheric bio-dome, the top of a canyon was sealed off with an advanced glasslike material thick enough to stop a nuclear bomb. The steep, flat walls of the canyon were outfitted with artificial gravity to allow the inhabitants of Xiagu to walk up and down them, heating elements to keep them from freezing to death, and specially engineered gardens to keep the atmosphere breathable in the airtight canyon.
Xiagu was a quiet, very insular community, more suburb than city. The children went to school during the day, did their homework in the evening, and for recreation, there were weekend games of a team sport that involved groups of players standing on one side of the canyon and throwing a ball high enough that it would get caught in the opposite wall’s gravity and fall to the other side, where the opposing team would attempt to volley it back. On paper, it was an incredibly boring sport that amounted to little more than volleyball with more complex physics, but the whole community usually came out to watch, and getting lost in the cheers and enthusiasm actually made it pretty fun to watch.
The adults all had jobs and, for the most part, nobody was poor. Their food was all produced in gardens at the base of the gulch, there were small businesses that offered just about anything you might need at a reasonable price. There wasn’t much crime, except for the occasional smuggler bringing contraband food or imported clothes in, but this was usually harmless. It was a nice, if incredibly dull, place to live.
The one thing about it that was, from the inside, extraordinary to a young Mingxia Huang was that she could always look to the mouth of the canyon and see Saturn, glorious, golden, and ringed, hanging in the sky. She used to watch it as she fell asleep and dream of places far more exciting than her home.
Her parents were good people. They weren’t too strict, but they also weren’t so permissive that Mingxia felt the need to act out for attention. They had steady, boring jobs tending to the climate control systems that made sure the colony stayed habitable. They loved their daughter, and she loved them. She hoped that when she grew up and got to live her exciting, glamorous life in the big city, she’d be able to provide for her parents in their old age.
Unfortunately, however, her parents never reached old age. They were two among the first wave of casualties in an outbreak that would claim the lives of every single resident of Xiagu, with two exceptions.
The viral cause of the plague would have been detected and eradicated quickly in the larger cities of Mars and the Jovian moons, and was little more than a minor annoyance in the mining communities of the Kupier belt where it originated. It was, technically speaking, alien life, but it was nothing as exciting as the Divoratori, it was just a few microbes and viruses that had been frozen in some of the larger asteroids, left over from some chunk of rock that had drifted into our system when the planets were young and never found its way back out. It caused sniffles and mild disorientation at first, and was just severe enough to affect productivity the slightest bit. The mining company added supplements to the company store that altered workers’ DNA to compensate for the symptoms, and slowly but surely, the community built up an immunity. Within a few generations, every single miner in the belt had the virus in their system, but they were completely asymptomatic.
Every couple of years, the virus would mutate and the sniffles and disorientation would return, and the mining company would have the supplements adjusted to address the new mutations. What they hadn’t accounted for was the cumulative effect of their continuous cycle. The virus had been incubating for hundreds of years in a community of people whose immune system had been genetically engineered scores of times to be resistant to its effects.
After generations of mutation and compensation, what had once been nothing but inconvenient sniffles and disorientation to the miners would, in the system of a person whose genetic code had not been radically altered to resist the virus, be a respiratory arrest and complete shutdown of the central nervous system within 18 hours of exposure. Under normal circumstances, the minerals would be disinfected and made sterile before anyone outside the community could touch them, and anyone who risked contact with the virus would be given a viral inhibitor that would prevent them from becoming infected.
This was, unfortunately, through legal channels. Smugglers, however, aren’t usually known for being sticklers for the rules. One young smuggler, a teenager from Xiagu, had gotten his hands on a sealed case of Platinum ore and a single dose of the antiviral supplement from a disgruntled miner who wanted to make a quick buck on the side and didn’t think to first disinfect the payload. The young smuggler then used the platinum ore as a bribe to convince a customs agent to look the other way while he brought his exotic fruits and designer jewelry into the bio-dome.
The customs agent would become patient zero fifteen hours after opening the case to inspect it. In those fifteen hours, he managed to interact with seventy-eight other people, sixty-two of whom were infected with the virus. Mingxia’s parents would become the seventh and eighth casualties, respectively. The victims were quarantined as soon as the threat was identified, but it was far too late. The virus was spreading too quickly to treat, and the community was far too small to sustain losses this heavy.
Mingxia was not able to say goodbye to her parents. They died while she was in school when she was twelve years old. She refused to believe they were really gone at first, and she screamed at her principal that he was lying, and demanded he bring her to them. It wasn’t until she arrived back home and saw the town pastor there to prepare her dinner and tuck her into bed that her heart properly sank.
She did not eat the dinner the pastor had prepared. She did not sleep that night. Her eyes remained fixed on the sky outside her window, on Saturn, as she wondered how this could be allowed to happen to people as good as her parents.
The next day the pastor drove her to the church and told her she’d be staying there for a while. It would be difficult to find her a new caretaker, half the town was in quarantine and the church was serving as a sanctuary for those who were uninfected and preferred to remain that way.
It was here that Mingxia met a young altar boy by the name of Prescott Cain. He, like her, was an orphan (although she almost struck him when he used the word “orphan” to describe her) who dreamed of one day going out into the stars and living a glamorous life in the big city of Xijing, on Callisto. She liked to hear about Prescott’s big dreams, even if they seemed unrealistic. He’d lost his parents years earlier, and she liked the idea that he was doing so well and still had hope even though he’d lost so much.
After a few hours of him regaling her with tales of escapades he hadn’t been on yet, he decided to confide his deepest secret with her: he left the village all the time. He’d go out on adventures, hunting treasure and seeing strange new places, but he always had to come back quickly or else the pastor would get wise.
“But if I had a partner,” he told her, “maybe I could start adventuring in the big city full-time!”
Mingxia was too young to realize she was being conned. She hadn’t put together that his “adventures” were actually petty crime, and she had absolutely no way of knowing the consequences of the crimes he’d committed. He wouldn’t even piece it together until years later, so how could she have known?
The next night, in total spite of how terrible an idea it is to run off with strangers even when one is emotionally stable, let alone in a state of grief, Mingxia and Prescott boarded a small shuttle and, taking advantage of the confusion the outbreak had caused, managed to escape their hometown. Mingxia and Prescott were lucky enough to evacuate before she could become infected, so they both assumed that the quarantine had worked and that life in Xiagu continued as usual without the two orphans who left in the night.
The next six months were spent on Callisto, in a shack that Prescott’s current gang had set him up with. Their days were spent running cons on the streets of Xijing. They started out small, with games of Three-Card Monte. Prescott would play the dealer, showing the crowd three cards (both black jacks and the queen of hearts) and laying them facedown on a table. Players would place a bet on whether or not they could identify the queen after the cards were quickly shuffled and rearranged, and if they were successful, they’d win back double their bet.
Of course, Three-Card Monte is a fairly well-known con, so it’s hard to get people to actually play. This is where Mingxia, the shill, comes in. She’d pose as a player, and when passers-by saw this little girl betting her allowance on the game and winning, they’d think maybe this game wasn’t rigged for once. It helped that Prescott was scarcely older than her, so most players actually thought they were taking advantage of him.
When this proved to be a somewhat slow way to make money, they started to up the ante. For a while, Mingxia would be sent into a bodega, one with no more than a single cash register, and wait for Prescott to make a purchase. When the register opened, Mingxia would have to break a bottle in the back and start crying loudly, causing the lone attendant to rush back to check on the ruckus. Approximately half the time, they’d forget to close the register all the way, and while the store owner was helping Mingxia clean up shards of broken glass, Prescott would empty out the cash drawer. If they failed, they’d have lost the cost of the candy bar Prescott bought, since store owners rarely charged the crying, unattended little girl for the bottle of iced tea she broke. If they succeeded, they’d walk away with several hundred dollars.
Across Xijing, Prescott pulled just about every scam and grift in the book with Mingxia as his shill. With varying degrees of success, they pulled slip-and-falls, fiddle games, melon drops, and for two shocking months, purchased dirt-cheap mushrooms from a local deli and passed them off as illegal hallucinogens to unsuspecting high school students at a vastly inflated price, knowing they couldn’t be reported for this without their customers admitting they’d attempted to purchase illegal narcotics.
Mingxia was never happy during this time, but she participated after Prescott told her she had to choose between taking the moral high ground and eating. She knew what she was doing was wrong, especially when the scams took advantage of others’ generosity. She felt lied to. She’d been promised a glamorous lifetime of adventure, not a hungry ten months ripping off shopkeepers and broke kids who were too dumb to know any better. When she raised this objection, Prescott would invariably ask, “how exactly is this different from what I promised?”
Mingxia became very good at persuasion. She lived with Prescott for a little under a year, and by the end of it, she could sell any lie with very little effort. She could, and often did, convince grown adults to part with hundreds of credits on the pretense that she needed to buy a three-credit bus fare. She hated herself almost as much as she hated Prescott.
Near the end of their time together, she couldn’t take the guilt anymore and threatened to roll over on him if he didn’t take her back to Xiagu. She figured the pastor could find her a caretaker, or she’d become a ward of the church, or they’d go to jail and end up in a state-run children’s home, and either way she’d be going legit and getting more food and a warmer bed. Prescott whipped up a batch of crocodile tears and claimed to agree with her. He told her, of course he’d take her back to Xiagu, but that he’d spent their last few dollars on packets of mushrooms, and that they’d have to sell this one last batch in order to buy passage.
They split the packets down the middle, agreed to run their usual routine on a high school where their stock hadn’t been discovered as fakes yet, and rendezvous back at their shack with whatever money they’d made.
Mingxia got within two blocks the school’s grounds before a police officer stopped her, announced that they’d received a tip about a young girl matching her description selling narcotics outside a high school. They searched her bag and found several packets of mushrooms inside. The police claimed the tip was anonymous, but she knew Prescott had sold her down the river to protect his own skin.
They took her into custody and, eventually, determined that the packets in her bag were full of perfectly legal, non-hallucinogenic mushrooms. As far as they could prove, she’d committed no crime and would have to be released into her parents’ custody. She told them she had no parents. They asked if she had a legal guardian. She gave them the name and address of the pastor in Xiagu, hoping they’d send her home.
It was at this point that Mingxia found out there was no more Xiagu to go back to. The entire population was dead less than a week after she left. She and Prescott were the only two survivors, and he was probably halfway across the system by this point.
The officers were left with no other option than to send her to a nearby home for orphaned children. This is where Ghostrunner first encountered Sweettalk, and where she’d learned of these events. Ghostrunner was the only person she’d ever confided this story in, and she’d made her promise to keep it a secret.
“Who would I tell?” Ghostrunner asked her, “I don’t talk to anyone.”
Ghostrunner confessed to feeling incredibly guilty for sharing this story with them, even though Sweettalk had apparently betrayed them, but reasoned that she would probably be okay with it if it made them blame her less for bolting.
Conditions at the orphanage were subpar, to say the least. There were only five residents, and they were given only enough food to keep them alive. For recreation, they had three moth-eaten books, a broken stationary bicycle, and each other’s company. They slept in sleeping bags on the floor instead of beds. Mingxia missed being able to look up at Saturn as she fell asleep terribly; the water damage on the ceiling of their windowless bedroom couldn’t hold a candle to that view.
The children at the orphanage had assumed there was just no funding whatsoever. The caretakers seemed nice enough, and were always very apologetic about being unable to provide filling portions or new clothes for the children. It wasn’t until after their rescue that they found out the caretakers were receiving thousands of credits in state funding and had keeping fake budgetary books that showed razor-thin margins. In reality, they spent the bare minimum on the children’s care and pocketed the rest for themselves.
An elderly neighbor named La Pesadilla eventually discovered the conditions the children were forced to live in, and, in a rare moment of conscience, she alerted an associate named Pilar Aguilar, who she knew operated a much better home for children with her young girlfriend.
The next day, the caretakers told the girls they’d all been adopted by a wealthy benefactor who’d offered to buy out the orphanage for an exorbitant price. The girls were surprised to see that their savior was such a beautiful young girl, hardly older than them, and covered in tattoos from the neck down. She ushered them into her shuttle and brought them to their new life on Ship Trap.
Later that day, Law Enforcement received an anonymous tip that included all the evidence necessary to put them in jail for the remainder of their lives. When the police got to them, the caretakers were found savagely beaten and tied to a post in the run-down orphanage, restrained in the childrens’ sleeping bags. They gave a full confession and offered no explanation of who had assaulted them. It was clear they’d rather live out their lives in prison than invoke that person’s wrath again.
Mingxia was initially resistant to the community on Ship Trap Island. She didn’t see how it was different than what Prescott did. It wasn’t until she found out that those living there were fed and sheltered even if they refused to participate, and that they exclusively took from those who had too much to feed those who didn’t have enough, that she was okay with it.
She eventually became a willing participant in the pirates’ adventures, and that’s when she really knew that this was different than what she’d been through with Prescott.
This time, she didn’t feel like she was taking advantage of innocent people, she didn’t feel like she was being taken advantage of, and she felt like her partners in crime viewed her as family, not as a tool. Her charisma made her rather popular with the crew, and the criminal skills she’d developed under Prescott became invaluable now that she was putting them to good use.
She was on the scene when a young Pilar Aguilar survived exposure to the void of space and became Pilar Spacebreather, and first took notice of Sasha Aguilar as she worked almost supernaturally hard to save her sister’s life. It would be a little while before she worked up the nerve to talk to her, but when she did, she laid on the charm like she never had before.
It wasn’t long before she earned her own new name, by—
“Well,” Ghostrunner said, “you know that part. She got Ariadne away from the police by posing as her lawyer, even though she was only fifteen years old. Stole a pantsuit from a department store and used talcum powder to put streaks of gray in her hair.”
“Jeez Louise,” Backflip sighed, “no wonder she ditched out. Last time Prescott sold her down the river, she ended up in that horrible orphanage. I’d have run too, if it was me.”
“That’s not a story about why she ran,” Sasha insisted, “my takeaway from all that is that she always has a plan.”
“Mine is that her plan is to get as far away from the police station as possible,” Backflip shrugged.
“Sasha’s got it right,” Ghostrunner said, “Look.”
Backflip and Deathsbane turned around to see the entrance to the holding cell, where a tired-looking officer was playing a card game by himself on a tablet.
Standing in front of the desk was Mingxia Sweettalk, dressed in high heels, a pencil skirt, horn-rimmed glasses and a navy blue blazer, carrying a tablet of her own and attempting to look as grown as possible.
“Excuse me, officer,” she said firmly, “I believe you’ve been holding my clients illegally.”
Chapter 14: Chapter 14 — The Tables, Turned
“Yeah,” Prescott muttered blearily, “she's not coming back.”
“Shut. Up.” The red-robed acolyte insisted, jabbing him in the back with a pistol. “Keep moving.”
“Hey! Watch it!” Prescott slurred, “I need medical attention!”
“You're going to need more if you don't keep your mouth shut,” the acolyte growled.
The three prisoners were marched down a long corridor and finally shackled into several antique chairs in a dusty room that reminded Ariadne of her childhood home. She was sure that the chairs in the dining room of Ramos Manor didn't have manacles built into the armrests, but otherwise they were shockingly similar.
Prescott's bleeding hand was given some rudimentary bandaging and the three of them were left to sit together while they waited for whoever was coming to interrogate them.
Their weapons were laid out carefully on a table in the corner next to the backpack containing Ariadne's cybernetic legs. A single Acolyte watched them intently from another chair, sans manacles, between the weapons and themselves.
“Do you have a plan?” Pilar whispered to Ariadne.
“You have been told to shut up,” the acolyte reminded them.
“I do, but you have to be quiet and don't blow it.” Ariadne whispered back.
“What are you two talking about over there?” The guard asked, and stood up.
As soon as he'd made it to his feet, he immediately collapsed into a heap on the floor. Behind him, Ariadne's four mechanical legs clumsily held her weapon, aiming it at approximately where the acolyte's head had recently been.
“Is he…?” Pilar asked cautiously.
“No, if I did it right he should just be unconscious for about half an hour.”
Prescott gave a delirious chuckle. “How did…!?” This was about as articulate as he knew how to be.
“The legs have a telepathic sensor, they respond to my—” Ariadne began to explain, but soon realized this was completely in vain as Prescott had lost too much blood to understand the finer points of bionics. “If they wanted to disarm me, they should've put the pack in a different room.”
The backpack crawled its way over to the chairs and began attempting to free Pilar from her restraints. The tip of one arm fired a small jet of plasma at the shackle and managed to get halfway through it when they heard the gunshot.
Ariadne let out a yelp of pain and the backpack collapsed immediately. Pilar glanced down and saw a large scorch-mark on the back of it.
The source of the gunshot stood in the doorway, holding a very large blaster. She was about fifteen years old with white-blonde hair, intricate patterns of orange drawn on her face, and a dark red robe.
She looked down at the passed-out acolyte. “Pathetic,” she muttered. “Why are the three of you in my house?”
Ariadne looked up at the young girl. “You look an awful lot like that brat who stole my identity.”
“Strange,” the girl said. It was almost comical, hearing this girl who was younger than both of them but talked like she'd learned English by watching old movies about southern preachers. “See, I was under the impression that 'Ariadne' was just a folk myth. It sounds like something a high school girl with a superhero complex would come up with.”
“I never went to high school,” Ariadne said indignantly. The look on Pilar's face reminded her that their captor was holding a very deadly weapon while they were unarmed, and that this was not the time for backsass.
“Can you give me one reason why I shouldn't shoot the three of you dead right now?” The girl asked. “I mean, if you're really the legendary Ariadne, keeping you alive would be quite a liability for me.”
Ariadne began, gesturing towards Prescott, “I can't speak for this eight-fingered waste of hair gel—”
“—Seven,” Pilar corrected.
“Thank you! You can go ahead and kill this seven-fingered waste of hair gel, there's definitely nobody who knows or cares where he is—”
“—Heyyyy…” A half-lucid Prescott objected, although he could not argue that she was wrong in good conscience, which would have stopped him if he had a conscience.
“—excuse you, you have been told to cram it,” Ariadne snapped back, “as I was saying, me and my girl? Some very dangerous people know where we are and will come looking for us. If they show up and we're dead, everyone here will die. If we're alive, you might just get roughed up.”
The fake Ariadne laughed derisively. “How am I supposed to believe they can do anything to us when you two got captured like that?” She snapped her fingers to illustrate the point.
“Okay, that's …” Pilar said, “ …fair.”
“Now, I'm gonna give y'all the benefit of the doubt because I've got questions and I don't usually enjoy killing children,” this struck Ariadne as somewhat strange, as the girl before them was easily four years younger than her. “First, how did you even get into this place?”
“Door was unlocked,” Ariadne replied. “This clown was already in here, I suspect he's the one who unlocked it.”
“Ah yes,” their captor responded, “our friend Mr. Cain. I believe we were promised an impenetrable security system. I think we should have a talk about a refund.”
“I think we should talk about a… fingers…” Prescott droned, and laughed near the end, as though what he'd said made any sense. The laugh quickly transformed into some pretty heavy crying. “Shit, man, you cut off my fingers…”
“That's an excellent point, darlin,” the impostor Ariadne replied.
“It is?” Pilar asked, genuinely confused.
“My next question is, why did you liberate Mr. Cain’s fingers from his hands?”
“Pissed me off,” Pilar replied simply, “seems to be going around today.”
“That's—” The impostor Ariadne suddenly winced in what seemed to be pain, as though struck by a sudden migraine. She almost lost her balance, but found her equilibrium before falling over altogether.
A voice came over an intercom somewhere near the door, “Prophet, are you alright?”
“I'm fine, leave me,” the impostor Ariadne snapped.
“Prophet, I must advise that we—” the voice over the intercom did not get to finish his sentence, and instead made a noise that sounded an awful lot like someone stuffed something in his mouth and then hit him over the head with something else. Judging by the sounds alone, it was probably a sock and a shoe, respectively.
“That doesn't sound good, faker,” Ariadne offered. “If you want to go check on that guy, we'll wait!”
“Sounds like our crew figured out we were in distress and sent someone to help,” Pilar casually commented back, “that or a third person decided to break into this place tonight.”
“Be quiet,” the impostor snapped back, and winced again, more severely this time, as though her body was racked with pain. She collapsed to the floor very suddenly. Ariadne and Pilar exchanged a glance, and Prescott started to laugh deliriously.
“What.” Ariadne looked down at the now completely unconscious girl on the floor.
As suddenly as she'd passed out, she awoke, sprang to her feet, and darted for the door.
“You've got to get out of here,” she said urgently, fastening the locks from the inside. Something was incredibly different about her voice. It seemed a lot less cruel and there wasn't a trace of southern drawl in it. “You need to get as far away from here and from me as possible, right now.”
She darted over to Pilar and Ariadne and began to loosen the restraints.
“Care to explain, suge?!” Asked a bewildered Ariadne. Someone very strong began banging on the door, seemingly trying to kick it down.
“You don't know what he's like. He'll kill you if you don't get out of here.”
“Who's the 'He' you're referring to?” Pilar asked.
“My father, the Zealot,” the girl explained, rushing to untie a now mostly unconscious Prescott. “May the Red God forgive me for my betrayal,” she began, and sprung into a rapidfire language that Pilar and Ariadne didn't understand, but Ariadne was sure she'd heard somewhere before. “Confíteor Deo omnipoténti et vobis, fratres, quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa. Ideo precor beátam excélsus Prophéta supra, omnes servos et disciplos, et vos, fratres, oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum. Amen.”
She continued repeating this as Ariadne and Pilar got loose from their chairs started to look for ways out of this room.
“Window,” Pilar said, and gestured at a window with several velvet ropes. They rushed towards it, hoping to be out of the room quickly, as whoever was attempting to kick down the door was clearly going to be momentarily successful.
They stopped just short of the window when a new sound caught their attention: a repeating thud coming from inside the room, coinciding with the pauses in their captor's chant.
Ariadne and Pilar turned to look back and saw the girl was rhythmically beating herself, closed-palmed, about the chest and face.
“Knew I recognized that damn prayer,” Ariadne muttered and rushed over to her.
“¿Qué haces? Time is a factor, querida!” Pilar rushed her.
“What kind of hypocrite would I be if I left her?” Ariadne demanded, and grabbed the flailing girl by the wrists, “baby, I'm here, okay? We're gonna get you away from him, I promise.”
The girl kept thrashing against Ariadne, “No, no, it's too late for me, you have to just go—”
“It's not too late, I promise, we're going to get you to safety,” Ariadne assured.
“Ari, we've got to go,” Pilar insisted.
“I'm not leaving without her,” Ariadne snapped.
Pilar understood this, but this did not deter her. “Throw her over your shoulder if you've got to, but that door is coming down!”
“It is, it is too late, I've betrayed the Red God and he's going to kill me,” the girl insisted. “He's in my head, he goes where I go, I can't escape him.”
The girl seized up suddenly and her earlier, more authoritative voice rang out: “DO IT NOW, SMITE THIS HEATHEN CHILD.”
The door finally gave in as the young girl burst into flames.
“What the hell?!” Sweettalk announced over the girl's pained screams as she and Sasha barreled into the room in flight suits, apparently carrying their own weight in weapons on their backs.
“Pilar, the curtains!” Ariadne shouted, and Pilar almost instinctively ripped them down and threw them to Ariadne, who used them to smother the flames as quickly as possible.
“Of course,” Pilar said, gazing out the now-exposed window, “of course we're in space.”
“Sasha, I'm so glad you're here, this girl needs medical attention now,” Ariadne said, “When the hell did we leave Mars?!”
Sasha immediately kneeled down on the ground and began bandaging the girl as quickly as possible. “I don't have a dose of serum strong enough to heal burns this severe, I'll do what I can, but there might be permanent damage.”
“If we could get her back to the ship?” Ariadne pleaded.
“With your knowledge of cybernetics and my medical expertise we should be able to keep her alive, but it won't be easy.”
“We've got to get a pickup, have either of you been in contact with Alicia?” Pilar asked, “Christ, how did we get to space?!”
“Fastwing is locked onto a signal in our suits, we knocked out the guards and she'll be boarding to pick us up in two minutes,” Sweettalk explained, “you left Mars as soon as you crossed the plane of the front door. Turns out the life centers are just portals to this place, Fastwing says they've been using something called Quantum Shift Generators to operate out of this space station. All the entrances lead here. That way, if their operation is ever busted, they can flip a switch and leave the authorities with a bunch of empty warehouses to search. I'm guessing that was this prick's idea,” she gestured at Prescott.
“You know him?” Pilar asked.
Sweettalk scowled. “An old thorn in my side. Who did that to his hand? And did someone punch him in the eye?”
“I did the hand, Ariadne did the eye,” Pilar said, “He was annoying us.”
“Okay,” Sweettalk said, “I might literally kiss you both later, but for now, we've got to get to the airlock.”
Sasha and Ariadne supported the badly-burned girl, who thankfully seemed somewhat delirious herself, and walked her out the door as Pilar and Sweettalk covered their six with guns drawn. Pilar slung Ariadne's broken mechanical legs over her shoulder.
As promised, Alicia was waiting for them at the airlock. They loaded onto the ship, where Ariadne and Sasha rushed their patient into the back and quickly got to work on healing her wounds. The tissue damage was too severe to be healed by any amount of Sasha's serum at this point. Sasha got to work on amputating the irreparably damaged tissue while Ariadne got to work on crafting cybernetic replacements from the cannibalized remains of her own cybernetic enhancements. By the time they were finished, their patient would have lost her right eye, her left arm, both legs, the bulk of her skin, and use of her lungs and heart. Luckily, the ship had a respirator that allowed her to continue breathing, and Ariadne was able to cannibalize the motor of her cybernetic legs and construct a crude fluid pump which would keep her blood flowing.
Luckily, they were able to anesthetize her so she would feel no pain. Her delirium had not settled, but she was still conscious and able to speak.
“Why did you… why am I alive…” She stammered.
“We got you away,” Ariadne replied in her calmest tone of voice, “just like I promised.”
“You should've left me,” the girl replied, “I deserved to die, you should've left me…”
“You didn't deserve to die, suge.” Ariadne suddenly realized she didn't know this girl's real name. “Hon, we're gonna get you through this. What's your name?”
“ViLaz,” she responded, “you should've… you should've left me there…”
“We're losing her!” Sasha shouted, and injected her with more of her regenerative serum.
“Stay with us, ViLaz, we're gonna keep you safe, okay?”
“I don't want to hear that. We didn't leave you there. You're going to live whether you like it or not, okay?”
ViLaz nodded and Sasha exhaled in relief.
“Her vitals are stabilizing. I think she's going to be okay, but she's going to need a lot more treatment. I think your cybernetics made the difference, cap. They're crude, but you'll make slicker replacements when we're back at the station.” Sasha removed her gloves and sighed.
“Thank you,” Ariadne held back tears and hugged Sasha.
“Can we talk in private?” Sasha asked seriously.
Sasha pulled Ariadne out of earshot of everyone and said, “I saw who this was, before she was burned. I thought you wanted her dead.”
“I had a change of heart,” Ariadne muttered.
“I'm glad you did, ” Sasha said plainly, “but I don't know why.”
“Sue me if I saw a little bit of myself in a little girl reciting a Catholic prayer because she's afraid of her father.”
Sasha considered this. “I had no idea you were Catholic.”
“I'm not.” Ariadne was having trouble holding back tears. “Now, come on. Our new friend needs her rest and I'm sure Sweettalk is explaining all sorts of things to Spacebreather, which should be fun to watch.”
Sasha laughed, less because Ariadne had said anything funny and more because Ariadne really seemed to need a shift in tone. They made their way up front, and sure enough, Spacebreather was intently listening to Sweettalk recounting the whole wild story.
Chapter 15: Chapter 15 -- The Recovery
It had been two and a half weeks since ViLaz had come aboard. Deathsbane had kept her on a steady drip of her regenerative catalyst, which was a world of help integrating the new cybernetic parts Ariadne and Alicia had built to replace what she’d lost in the fire.
It was physically easy to treat her. She seemed conscious, but somewhat unresponsive. She stood when left standing, she sat when offered a chair, she would take no initiative to feed herself, but when food or water was placed in front of her she seemed to know what to do with it. She offered no resistance and followed instructions when Ariadne attempted to recalibrate her new legs, or when Sasha attempted to sponge-bathe her.
She did not speak unless spoken to, and when giving a response, she didn’t waste words. Her tone was flat and vacant, as though her mind had left her body to attend to some other business, and in her place was a completely thoughtless AI who’d been given the sole directive to keep her from dying, so long as it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.
After a few days, she seemed to come out of her shell a bit. It was clear that she was, in fact, present and alert, although she was also experiencing some of the most profound grief imaginable, and the consensus on the ship was that “on this ship, that’s saying something.”
She was cautious and guarded, and she wouldn’t talk about herself, but she found something comforting about eating next to other people, especially other teenagers. There was an energy that came with being around people her own age that she didn’t realize she’d been craving until she was surrounded by it. She’d spent pretty much her entire life eating flavorless meals alone, and she only had her father for company.
She avoided this line of thought. Her father was probably furious with her for defying the will of the Red God. She hoped he believed her to be dead, because she figured if he knew she was alive, he’d be along any minute to finish the job.
Deathsbane had been shocked, when examining her, to find a piece of cybernetic equipment that they had not installed at the base of her skull. It was no larger than a fingernail and had been heavily damaged by the flames, but Ariadne and Alicia were hard at work trying to divine its purpose.
Sweettalk had been a great help in showing her around the ship, getting her well-acquainted with the crew, and getting her settled in her very own quarters. Her condition had improved enough that she would no longer need to stay in the infirmary, and they’d made it clear she was welcome to a bed and a roof for as long as she needed one.
Of course, Sweettalk was one of the few people who could comfortably have an entire conversation with someone who didn’t respond once, so ViLaz felt more comfortable around her. It helped that Sweettalk was close with the girl who’d healed her burns as well. ViLaz had never experienced people being so welcoming before. This was a group who took shock and offense when someone was ashamed of themselves, and not one of them ever told her that she deserved it for being a sinful, wicked child.
The sight of her cybernetics was still somewhat jarring. The serum managed to prevent scarring on the parts of her body that had not been removed, but her prosthetics were not at all subtle.
To start, Ariadne had improved on the life-support system they’d initially developed and constructed new, more stable, permanent replacements for her vital organs. Then, she and Alicia moved on to replacing her lost limbs. It was easy to use the tech behind Ariadne’s mechanical legs to make metal skeletal structures that responded to ViLaz’ thoughts as well as her original limbs, and bionic eyes were common enough that she could be fitted with one almost immediately. They even knew how to synthesize self-repairing fibers that could be woven into new muscles, and with some effort, they even developed a form of synthetic skin with artificial nerve endings, so her prosthetic limbs had a sense of touch.
The problem was the appearance of these modifications. They were sleek and modern and they felt so organic that if she couldn’t see herself, she might have never realized she ever lost a part of her body. They were also a stark, metallic white and had electric blue accents.
“I’m sorry about this,” Ariadne said the first time she saw herself, “these are just prototypes so you can get a feel for them, we didn’t have time to make them look realistic. We’re working hard to get you a better model, okay?”
ViLaz told her not to rush, and that she wasn’t really concerned with her prosthetics looking realistic. She didn’t tell her that her whole life her appearance had been strictly controlled. The acolytes who cut her hair would actually measure the length, before and after, every single time, and she had no say in how it was cut or styled, or what she wore, or whether or not she wanted intricate red patterns drawn on her face. She actually kind of liked looking like she was half-machine, there was a certain freedom in knowing she was so far outside how the acolytes wanted her to look.
When her mind went down this road she was struck with a pang of shame. She’d disappointed the acolytes. She’d failed her father. She’d committed blasphemy against her lord. She had sinned and she had escaped the flames of righteous punishment the Red God had intended for her and he would be at her doorstep any minute to cast her into the pit of fire where she belonged.
She often wanted to hit herself, quite literally as she’d been taught self-flagellation as a form of penance her whole life, for having such sinful and rebellious thoughts. Ariadne and Pilar, however, would often sit with her late into the night just to make sure she was okay, and for some reason she couldn’t stand the thought of hurting herself in front of people who’d gone to such lengths to ensure her safety.
There were other days when she found relief in the idea that the Red God made it clear that she’d failed her final test, lost any chance of salvation, and that she’d be sent to hell no matter what she did now, so she might as well have fun in the meantime. These were the relatively good days, which Ariadne found incredibly disheartening, because that’s still a pretty negative outlook on life.
“You know,” Sweettalk pointed out from the next bed in the infirmary, popping red candies into her mouth while Sasha checked the progress of ViLaz’ burns. There was absolutely nothing medically wrong with her, but she was off-duty and liked to spend her downtime with Sasha. “You fit in here a lot better than you think you do. I mean, we’ve all got some pretty heavy baggage.”
“I didn’t bring any baggage,” ViLaz replied, confused.
“Emotional baggage,” Sasha explained, “she means that you’re not alone, and everyone here knows what it’s like to be in a hopeless situation or they wouldn’t have ended up here. Lift your arm, please.”
ViLaz lifted her arm.
“Yeah, exactly,” Sweettalk continued and ate another candy, “I mean, hell, my shitty past is strapped to the bed right over there.” She gestured across the room at Prescott. “Yeah asshole, we’re talking about you.”
“Hey, how come I don’t get fancy bionics like her?” asked Prescott, who had long since given up struggling against his restraints.
Sweettalk spat back, “she’s a teenage girl who got set on fire through no fault of her own and needed life-saving treatment. You’re a 20-year-old conman who lost three fingers when you got caught robbing a church.”
“Also you tried to bite the doctor after she reattached your original fingers,” Sasha added helpfully. “If you wanted bionics so bad you should’ve left them on the ship.”
The side of ViLaz’ face that still had organic skin turned red. “It was my fault,” she muttered.
“Hey, I don’t want to hear that,” Sweettalk said flatly, “that’s my friend ViLaz you’re talking about and she’s done nothing to deserve being set on fire, you hear?”
ViLaz did not agree with this sentiment but it was clear that Sweettalk could argue that water was dry and win, so she didn’t press on it.
“Anyway,” Sweettalk went on, shaking a handful of candies out of the bag, “if you’re worried about those church guys coming to find you, you’re in the right place. This place was made for kids who need to hide from bad people. Like, literally. You should’ve seen the people Ariadne was hiding from. Oh, and what happened to them when they tried to track her down? Basically what I’m saying is, if someone tries to hurt you here, they’re the ones who are gonna get hurt. Candy?”
Sweettalk offered her the handful of red candies and ViLaz saw that they were in the shape of small fishes. They were made of a gel that looked medicinal to her, but she politely took exactly one and popped it in her mouth.
It was overpoweringly sweet and sticky. “It’s delicious,” ViLaz gasped, “is all candy this good?”
Sweettalk sat up sharply. “Shut up! You’ve never had candy?!”
“Shut up” was not a phrase ViLaz realized could be said in a friendly tone of voice and she flinched upon hearing it.
“I’m sorry!” She whimpered, “I’m sorry, I’ll be quiet, I’m sorry.”
Sweettalk was shocked by this reaction and adjusted her voice to be almost too friendly in an attempt to compensate. “Hey, it’s okay! It’s just a figure of speech, I don’t actually want you to be quiet. I was just surprised you’d never tasted candy before, okay?”
ViLaz sat silently, embarrassed beyond belief.
“I think I know what we’ve got to do,” Sasha said, placing her hand softly on ViLaz’ shoulder, then turning to Sweettalk. “Call Cookie. Get her to send up three of every kind of candy we’ve got. We’re having a tasting.”
“Can I—” Prescott began to ask from across the infirmary.
“NO.” Sweettalk and Sasha snapped in unison.
“I’m hungry,” he whined, “and you won’t let me go to the mess hall myself.”
“Yeah, we tried that and you tried to steal all our food and hijack a shuttle.” Sasha replied.
“So, what, everyone’s allowed to come and go as they please but me?” Prescott asked incredulously.
“Awww, you’ve finally grasped the concept of being held captive!” Sweettalk crooned sarcastically, as though she was talking to a baby. “But, we technically shouldn’t let you starve, so I’ll tell Cookie to whip you up a nice bowl of plain oatmeal and a glass of water in case it’s too spicy.”
Several minutes later, Cookie filed in with two full carts of various candies and a single bowl of lukewarm oatmeal. Prescott’s restraints were loose enough that he could move his arms to feed himself, and he briefly considered throwing the oatmeal against the wall to prove a point, but upon considering how many people in the room he’d thrown under various buses, he decided they would be unlikely to provide him with a replacement meal and opted instead to eat it.
For the next hour or so, Sasha took a break from inspecting ViLaz’ progress and the three girls all sat on the same bed, trying different kinds of candy. It was the first time ViLaz had ever truly felt what it was like to have friends, and for a moment she forgot about all of the grief and shame she’d been carrying since she arrived. It was, up to that point, the single best experience of her life.
It was to be short-lived. In the drowsy, saccharine haze of their candy feast, known to most as a “sugar crash,” they heard Ariadne’s voice crackle over the intercom.
“Sweettalk, Deathsbane, you’re gonna want to get up here on the double. Bring ViLaz, she should see this too.”
After checking that Prescott’s restraints were extra-tight, the three girls hustled up to the War Room and found Ariadne and Spacebreather sitting around a hologram of a young girl standing on a stage in flowing robes.
“Is that me?” ViLaz looked puzzled. “Before… you know…”
“Really seems to be you, doesn’t it?” Ariadne asked, “problem is, this hologram was taken an hour ago.”
“I don’t understand…” ViLaz struggled to process this news.
“Sweettalk was right,” Deathsbane muttered.
“Confirms a working theory we had before your rescue. You’re not the only girl they’ve been using as a mouthpiece. One of your sisters, or half-sisters—”
“I don’t have any sisters,” ViLaz couldn’t make sense of what she was hearing. “I’m the sole scion of the Zealot.”
“What do you mean?” Pilar asked.
“My father’s bloodline was chosen as the vessel of the Red God on our plane, but his body was flawed and impure. He couldn’t contain the power of the Red God, and he was to be the last of his bloodline, but by His providence, a daughter was born. I was to be the Red God’s vessel, but in my weakness I rejected his glory and he…” ViLaz could not continue.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Honey,” Ariadne said, “did your dad tell you all of that?”
“No,” ViLaz responded, “the Red God did.”
“Come again?” Pilar asked.
“The Red God. He appeared to me regularly in my chamber, to prepare me for his coming. He spoke through me and spread his word to the people of Mars.”
Pilar and Ariadne exchanged a glance and Ariadne shuffled through a few papers. “Your chamber, suge, did it look anything like this?”
Ariadne held up the schematics of the immersion pod they’d picked up from La Pesadilla.
“That’s it. How did you get this…?”
“Did the Red God ever appear to you outside this pod?” Ariadne asked.
“No, we’d converse in the chamber and he’d speak through me when I left it.” ViLaz was shocked to see her chamber, where she’d grown up, laid out as a blueprint in front of her.
“Hon, this chamber is a highly advanced piece of technology. They use it to put thoughts in your head, control your dreams. I suspect the Red God was nothing more than one of those Acolytes trying to program the hell out of you, pardon the pun.”
“You’re wrong,” ViLaz said, knowing somewhere in the back of her mind that Ariadne was not wrong.
Ariadne tried to keep her tone slow and gentle. “We got these schematics from a lady who’s had run-ins with your daddy before. He uses these pods to show people visions of whatever it took to get them to join his church, be it dead relatives or Jesus himself—”
“Who’s ‘Jesus?’” ViLaz asked.
“I… have no response to that,” Ariadne said calmly, “but I want you to think rationally for a moment. What’s more likely, that your dad bought up a bunch of brainwashing beds and mind control chips, then you just happened to grow up in a bed that showed you visions of god, and occasionally someone else took control of your body? Or is it more likely that those things are connected?”
ViLaz knew the correct answer but felt unable to acknowledge it. “You’re wrong, I can’t explain it, but—”
Ariadne looked exasperated. “If you can’t explain it then why do you believe it?”
“Vi,” Deathsbane cut in as calmly as she could while still making it clear it was her turn to talk, “we removed a computer chip from the base of your skull when you got here. It was too damaged to recognize at first, but I’d bet it lines up to the schematics we’ve got for this mind control device.”
ViLaz rubbed the back of her neck, knowing that any surgical wounds were healed by now. “There … was a chip in my skull?”
“Occam’s razor,” Pilar pointed out. “Someone else was able to override your free will. The Zealot is known to be in possession of mind control devices. You had an unknown device lodged in your brain. Seems silly to assume those three things are just coincidence.”
“It does…” ViLaz sighed. “But I never knew about any sisters. He told me I was his only child… the only hope for the Red God’s rebirth …”
“Pressure trick,” Ariadne offered. “He made you think everything was riding on you so you’d be extra scared to fail.”
ViLaz looked ashamed.
“Frankly,” Ariadne said, “I admire you for finding the courage to do what you did. I know you might feel like a failure as a daughter right now, and believe me, sugar, I’ve been there, but I hope you know we’re all very proud of you for asserting your free will, and I want you to know that we will do whatever we can to win the freedom of every other man, woman, and child under his control.”
ViLaz looked at Ariadne, then around at a room full of friendly faces, which was something she’d never seen before arriving at Ship Trap. “You’re proud of me?”
“Of course we are,” Sweettalk said, “you totally saved our butts back there, and you had everything to lose. You’re a badass.”
ViLaz gave a hint of a smile, but then furrowed her brow. “What’s ‘badass?’”
Chapter 16: Chapter 16 -- The Trade-Off
Back in the infirmary, Prescott was pitching an absolute hissy fit about his treatment aboard, as though he had high expectations for the level of comfort that was generally afforded to those taken prisoner by pirates.
He was, of course, actually being treated pretty well by those standards. He was in a relatively comfortable hospital bed and had been left in complete control of its inclination. His captors provided him with adequate food, he was given prompt and free medical attention, and his bed was facing a small hologram crystal playing a marathon of Deimos, P.I. reruns.
This is, of course, not to say that he should have been grateful. Far from it, in fact, he was being held captive and had every right to be incredibly angry, and he exercised that right to its fullest. It was, however, somewhat ridiculous for someone in his position to be making outlandish demands of Cookie, like “a glass of sparkling water every hour on the hour, with fresh-cut limes and a bowl of cucumbers on the side.”
Without fail, Cookie brought him the same bowl of plain oatmeal and glass of non-sparkling tap water, devoid of limes, in response to every request. She was a consummate professional, but she had her limits, and after the third or fourth time he asked for an array of bagel chips and berry-infused cream cheese spreads, Cookie began responding by putting a little more tap water in his oatmeal. This wouldn’t diminish the amount of food he got, but would effectively ruin its texture, which is about the only thing plain oatmeal has going for it.
This was, in Cookie’s mind, a shame. His requests were things she’d actually love to try her hand at, but she, like most people on the station after only a few days, absolutely could not stand Prescott, who was this insufferable even when he was not being held against his will. She had no interest in giving him anything he wanted, or interacting with him beyond her captain’s orders.
“Keep him alive, he knows something about that cult and we’re gonna need all the information we can get to save those girls.”
On this particular day, Cookie was overwhelmingly relieved to hear that she could have the afternoon off from Prescott Duty, since Ariadne would be bringing him his lunch personally.
Ariadne entered the room quietly, placed his tray on the table next to him, loosed his restraints, and muted the Val Deimos marathon.
She was dressed down, barefoot in a pair of stylish denim shorts and a loose-fitting black t-shirt. Her mechanical legs were nowhere to be seen and her spider-like goggles were replaced with the rectangular wireframe glasses she wore when she wasn’t working.
Prescott was dressed in a hospital gown, which is how he’d been dressed since he’d been staying there, and looked rather greasy, which is how he usually looked anyway.
“What is this?” He asked after a beat.
“I’ve been hearing a lot about you from my good friend Mingxia,” Ariadne explained. “You’re a good liar, I’m told, and you always act in your own self-interest.”
Prescott didn’t have much of a response to this, but he still opened his mouth in the hopes that one would come out anyway. It did not.
“I want you to know that it’s in your best interest not to lie to me. See, I decided a few days ago that we should let you go. It wasn’t a popular decision, see, Spacebreather and Sweettalk both want you dead, and I should stress that this is the first thing I’ve ever known them to agree on. We tried to keep word of your past, shall we say, missteps from spreading to the crew, but we’re on a ship full of teenagers and you know how rumors spread. Now, they’re all dying to get a piece of you. So, at the end of this conversation, I’m going to give you your freedom, I want you to understand that. If you tell me what I want to hear, you and I can walk to telepad together and we’ll send you on your way, wherever you want. If you don’t cooperate, I’ll be forced to let you walk to the telepad by yourself, and I should warn you, I can’t make promises about how my crew will treat you when I’m not there to protect you.”
Prescott scoffed, “you really expect me to cooperate with that? Talk or my crew kills you?”
“Oh, they won’t kill you,” Ariadne replied calmly. “But, if I’m with you, I can order our physician to waive your medical debt.”
“Debt?” Prescott asked, “You expect me to pay her for reattaching my fingers after you kidnapped me?”
“Oh, no, nothing so complex as money,” Ariadne laughed. “But, Sasha gave you three fingers, which you didn’t have when she found you. The price for that is any useful information you have on the Red God cult. Give us that, and you’ll walk out of here without a scratch. Otherwise, my first mate has been authorized to repossess the medical services you’ve rendered during your stay here.”
“Repossess— you’re going to cut off my fingers again if I don’t tell you what I know?!”
“Of course not!” Ariadne chuckled. “Spacebreather’s going to cut off your fingers again if you don’t tell me what you know. And, with interest, plus the cost of oatmeal… well, let’s just say you won’t have to worry about losing extremities to frostbite anymore.”
“This is insane,” Prescott snapped, “this is a shake-down.”
“Brilliant observation,” Ariadne said. “Start talking.”
“I’m not going to go along with this just because you’re trying to intimidate me.”
“Yes, you are. You know full well that you deserve every shitty thing that’s happened to you in the past week, and more importantly, you’re a coward and you don’t want to risk anything bad happening to you.”
Prescott considered this for a moment. He was a coward and even he had the self-awareness to know he could not truthfully say that he hadn’t done at least one thing to earn every misfortune of the past week.
“I’ve got something that might be helpful,” he started, “but there’s something I want in return.”
“We already established what you get in return, suge, you’re not much in a position to be making demands.”
“No, you’ve gotta understand— I was their security provider. I didn’t do a great job, granted, but you can’t exactly hire someone to guard your secrets without letting that person in on a few of them. What I’m trying to say is, I know something big about the Zealot. A silver bullet secret, one that can take down the whole cult in the right hands.”
“And why should I believe you?”
“You ever wonder why everyone who visits those life centers converts to their religion? I know how he’s doing it and how to reverse it. You ever wonder why he disappeared a few years back? I know where he went. Got any clue why he’s got three little girls with mind control chips in their heads? I do! Get me what I want and it’s all yours.”
This was not a compelling case for why Ariadne should believe him. He did sound sure of himself, however, he had also been a confidence trickster for most of his life. “Give me some hard evidence what you’re telling me is true and we can talk about what you want.”
“A lot of people know the Zealot was a scientist before all of this started. That’s part of how his crazy movement got so much credibility in the first place. He liked to keep his true name under wraps, though. Didn’t want anyone looking into the subject of his research. His old name still showed up on the security invoices, though, even though he made me sign some bullshit non-disclosure agreement. Of course, people didn’t really need to know who he was or what he’d been authoring papers about to trust that he knew what he was talking about. He said he was a scientist, and people are sheep. It reminds me of an old test called the Milgram—”
“If you don’t get to the point I may actually cut you.”
Prescott looked genuinely hurt. “It’s an interesting experiment…” he muttered, then continued. “Anyway, only a select few people actually know his name from back before he was the Zealot. I trust you’ve heard of Dr. C. Alexander Simon?”
“I feel like you know I haven’t.”
“Why don’t you use that antique hologram to look him up? See what he’s supposed to be up to today? Put that thing to some good use instead of just streaming Cop Dramas all day.”
“Fine,” Ariadne shrugged, and turned to pull up information on Dr. Simon on the holoscreen, “also, Val Deimos isn’t a cop, she’s a former cop who quit the force and became a P.I. because of corruption in the…” Ariadne trailed off as the information loaded. The photograph of Dr. Simon was unmistakably the same person as the photo La Pesadilla had given them.
“Yeah, because Santa Helena is a hotbed of corruption and not a quaint suburb. This show is ridiculous.”
“No, shut up, I’m reading.” Ariadne hushed him and furrowed her eyebrows as she struggled to comprehend what she was reading. “This doesn’t make sense, according to this he’s supposed to be—”
“Yeah, look up what he’s famous for, should be the section marked ‘Controversy and Disgrace.’”
“Oh my g—” Ariadne’s eyes widened in shock. “Did he actually do it?”
“I suspect he’s very close.”
“This is all very enlightening,” Ariadne responded, “but I still don’t see how this is a silver bullet that’s going to destroy the cult and break whatever spell he’s got over his followers.”
“You get that after I get what I want.”
Ariadne huffed in annoyance. “And what do you want?”
Prescott gritted his teeth. “I want my money back.”
Five minutes later, Ariadne and a now fully-dressed-but-still-handcuffed Prescott entered the war room where Sasha and Sweettalk were intently playing a game of chess, and Spacebreather was equally intently playing a game of darts.
So they could all hear, Ariadne announced, “Meet me in the briefing room in 20 minutes, we’re going to help Prescott rob a casino.”
“What?!” Sweettalk practically spat in reply.
Chapter 17: Chapter 17 -- The Pros and Cons
“Your objections have been noted, Sweettalk,” Ariadne addressed the crew about 25 minutes later, give or take, in front of the whiteboard once again, “and none of us likes having to work with this slimeball—”
“—Can I raise an objection?” Prescott cut in.
“All objections have been noted,” Ariadne spat back, “but the information Prescott’s carrying is too valuable to our cause to pass up.”
“And what is our cause, exactly?” Sweettalk asked, “because, I mean, I get that this cult is bad news, but, why is that still our business?”
“Would your conscience allow you to let Vi’s sisters stay locked up?” Ariadne replied casually.
Sweettalk considered this. “It… ugh, it would not…”
“Besides,” Ariadne continued, “and this is a totally selfish reason, but as long as they’ve got one of the impostors, they can keep posing as me and ruining my good name.”
“Your good name as… a wanted criminal…?” Prescott interjected.
“This is now the fifth time someone has told you to cram it,” Sasha pointed out. “I’ve been counting.”
“Do you want our help or not?” Ariadne offered in assent.
“I’m getting your help regardless,” Prescott smirked, “remember, my information is ‘too valuable to pass up.’”
“What information do you have?” Pilar snapped, “God, sorry, it’s hard to keep this group focused sometimes.”
“Thank you, Ms. Pilar,” Prescott smiled at her.
“Don’t get friendly. I still hate you. Keep talking.”
“Must have been raised in a barn, I swear,” Prescott muttered. “No matter. I have extensive information on the cult leader known as The Zealot. I’ve already told your captain enough independently verifiable information to prove that I’m not full of shit, but given our track record thus far, I understand if you still don’t exactly trust me, and believe me, the feeling’s mutual.”
“Prescott and I have worked out a deal,” Ariadne explained. “He needs our help retrieving some valuable artifacts from a casino in Lohnausfall where he believes his girlfriend—”
“—ex-girlfriend,” Prescott snapped.
“Shock,” Ariadne replied sarcastically, then continued, “a casino where he believes his ex-girlfriend fled to with the bag of church artifacts he stole from the Red God compound.”
“Church artifacts are valuable?” Alicia chimed in from the crowd.
“These ones are,” Prescott explained, “The Zealot, see, he’s bartered, stolen, and even killed to get just about every ancient text, every holy artifact, basically anything the Catholic Church wanted to keep under wraps. He learned how to establish a religion using primary sources on some of the most powerful churches of all time. I’ve got nothing against people of faith, but, he took something good and twisted it to his own ends, which obviously I appreciate. One of the reasons my security company never sold those compounds out is because we knew they were sitting on a fortune bigger than any sticker price we could’ve given a buyer, and we could just quietly slip in any time, take one document, sell it to fund our operation for a year, and if they ever noticed it was gone, they’d just chalk it up to an archaic and confusing filing system. In that duffel bag alone, among other things, there was an original manuscript of the Gospel of Judas, one of the nails purportedly used to hang Jesus on the cross, the true shroud used to cover his body, and enough documentation to prove the authenticity of every bit. In the right hands, each artifact is worth millions, maybe more.”
“Okay, so, it’s obvious Prescott is a slimeball who’s attempting to exploit humanity’s cultural heritage for his own profit,” Ariadne began, “I think we can all agree on that—”
“I can’t!” Prescott scoffed.
“Everyone whose opinion matters can agree on that, but, given his history, I wasn’t exactly comfortable helping him out with no guarantee that he won’t throw us under the bus and make a mad dash to save himself. So, we came up with a little arrangement. Prescott wrote everything he knows about the Zealot on a tablet which will be entrusted to Sweettalk, the least likely person in the universe to ever help Prescott—”
“Yo,” Sweettalk said, making a thumbs-up to indicate that she was absolutely game to be unhelpful where Prescott is concerned.
“—and, to ensure that we don’t just take the information and drop him out the airlock on the way to Lohnausfall,” Ariadne continued, holding up two small memory drives, “these are the two decryption keys. I coded them myself. Even I can’t hack my way into that tablet without both of these, so if either of them are missing, the tablet is useless. One will be on Prescott’s person, the other in Pilar’s. Both of them need to return for this to work.”
Sweettalk raised her hand.
“We’ve established that this is not a classroom, Sweettalk, ask your question.” Pilar sighed.
“What’s to stop him from taking his key and booking it once he has what he wants?” Sweettalk asked.
“I hate that she makes such a good point,” Pilar asked.
“Oh, you’re gonna like this,” Ariadne grinned, and, without warning, quickly tackled Prescott to the ground.
There was a quick scuffle, the sort you might expect when one person abruptly throws their entire weight onto another person and knocks them to the floor, but after a few seconds it resolved itself into Ariadne twisting Prescott’s arm behind his back and attaching a heavy-looking black manacle to his wrist.
“THERE.” Ariadne said, slotting one of the drives into a small notch in the manacle, which closed behind it.
“WHAT THE HELL?!” Prescott bellowed.
“I like it already,” Sweettalk laughed. “What is it?”
“I call it The Jumper,” Ariadne said, “I invented it a few months back and I’ve always wanted a chance to use it. It’s got a small, long-range teleporter inside it, hardwired to our receiving pad. Only I can unlock it, although I have no manual control over it. It activates automatically if it leaves a 1-kilometer range of my person, or if any of our crew’s vitals go critical for more than 30 seconds. If he attempts to flee, or harms any of us, the Jumper will automatically return to our station.”
“And what’s stopping him from leaving Spacebreather in the back of some cop car, so having his key back doesn’t do us any good?” Sweettalk asked, “Sorry, Spacebreather, I’m not doubting you, but we can’t afford to underestimate how much of a snake in the grass this guy is.”
Ariadne released her hold on him. “I’m right here, you know,” Prescott said, sounding somewhat offended.
“OH, ARE YOU?” Sweettalk asked, “I WASN’T SURE, I WOULD’VE SAID SOMETHING MORE INSULTING.”
Ariadne jumped in at this point, hoping to keep the crew focused, “the Jumper is programmed to return to our station. It is also designed to take the wrist it’s attached to with it, and do so in such a way that ensures the wearer will bleed out within minutes.”
“So, we know he can’t screw us over again,” Sasha started.
“Don’t count on that,” Sweettalk interjected.
“But, do we have a plan to actually extract the target?” Sasha finished.
“The security at the casino is lax,” Ariadne explained. “Big Top Casino is owned by the Rizzo crime family. Now, I’m told they used to be a big deal, and the head honcho Harry ‘Big Top’ Rizzo is a force to contend with, but their wealth has waned in recent years, which I’d bet is why they wanted these artifacts in the first place. They’ll have a lot of goons on the ground, but the main threat they’re there to guard against is hit jobs by rival families. They don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to try to steal something out of the safe in Big Top’s office, which is where the target will undoubtedly be.”
“Can you crack the safe?” Pilar asked.
“I’ve never met a safe I couldn’t,” Ariadne said, “all I need is to make sure I don’t get caught cracking it. So, we’re going to need to divide into two teams. Diamond Team, that’s Spacebreather, Deathsbane, Sweettalk, and any available Whiptals, your job will be to stage a robbery on the casino floor. Make a big show of it. You don’t actually need to get anything out of the robbery, just make it believable enough that security thinks you’re the threat and comes running, and most importantly, don’t get killed.”
“Do we really think that Deathsbane—” Pilar began.
“I don’t want to hear any arguments on this,” Ariadne cut in, “we need a field medic on site for any dangerous missions from here on out. If you’d like Deathsbane to take on an apprentice, we can talk about that when we get back, but in the meantime, we’ve only got one medic and we can’t afford to be away from her.”
Pilar let out a somewhat angry-sounding sigh. “Fine, whatever.” Sasha smiled and Sweettalk smiled wider.
“Easy enough,” Sasha shrugged, “I’ll prep a few auto-capsules for the regen serum that’ll monitor our vitals and inject us in the event of any sort of trauma. They’re one-use only, though, so try not to get hit, and if you do, go down and play dead so they don’t shoot you again.”
“So, we’re the diversion,” Sweettalk mused, “but what happens when you’ve got the safe? Do we have an exit strategy?”
“Fastwing will keep the shuttle cloaked nearby with a receiving pad idling. As soon as I give her the signal, we flee as quickly as we can and she flies us the hell out of there.”
“What will I be doing during all of this?” Prescott asked.
“Other than cramming it?” Sasha proposed, and Sweettalk quietly high-fived her.
“You’ll be with me,” Ariadne said flatly. “If you’re seen on the casino floor this ex-girlfriend of yours will know what we’re there for and the diversion will be blown. For all your faults, you’re a pretty good liar, and that’s going to work to our advantage. You’ll be our lookout, wearing your security guard getup. If anyone catches us red-handed, your job is to get us out of trouble.”
“You’d trust him to do that?” Sweettalk asked incredulously.
“I’d trust him as far as I could throw his grubby little severed hand and a bag full of blasphemous goodies,” Ariadne replied casually.
“Fair,” Sweettalk nodded.
“So, anything else we need to know?”
“One thing,” Prescott interjected, “Don’t underestimate my ex, Nicks. She may look harmless, but she might be the most dangerous person I’ve ever met.”
Pilar looked moderately offended.
“Ego still a little bruised from the breakup?” Sweettalk offered.
“I’m not kidding,” Prescott insisted, “maybe it’s from growing up with the rest of the Rizzos, but she has this, like, Bonnie and Clyde thing, she lives for danger and that’s more important to her than her own safety or anyone she loves. There is no risk she’s unwilling to take, and no consequence great enough to give her pause. Call me biased or jilted or whatever, but if she confronts you, don’t bother firing a warning shot. She can’t be intimidated, if anything, it’ll just encourage her. Shoot to kill.”
“Noted.” Ariadne rolled her eyes. She was sure they could handle whatever squeaky-voiced rich brat who was airheaded enough to find Prescott attractive, and she didn’t need to know him for very long to know you couldn’t trust a word out of his mouth. “If there’s nothing else, let’s saddle up and get this heist underway. I don’t want to spend any more valuable time helping Prescott, whom I hate, than we need to.”
Chapter 18: Chapter 18 -- The Heist
Sometimes, when a person makes a declarative statement, they are only referring to one specific, usually fleeting instance. For example, if someone said “it’s cold in Lohnausfall,” what they may actually mean is “it’s cold in Lohnausfall today.” This statement would remain true even if it was warm there the next day. They could also mean “it’s cold in Lohnausfall in winter,” which would also remain true even if it is incredibly hot in Lohnausfall in the summer.
However, they could also be referring to the general, often much more permanent, state of things. In that case, when they say “It’s cold in Lohnausfall,” what they mean is that it is just generally a cold place, and that whenever you visit Lohnausfall, it would make sense to bring a coat.
In some cases, both senses of the word apply. For example, if someone said “it’s cold in Lohnausfall,” what they could mean is “I know it’s always cold in Lohnausfall, but wow, it’s especially cold today.”
A more relevant example would be the statement “Nicks Rizzo was bored,” which is, unlike “it’s cold in Lohnausfall,” was true both in general, and specifically at this moment.
Nicks Rizzo was bored. She rarely managed to find a moment when she was not bored, but right now, she was especially bored. The night was dark and dull and absolutely nothing was happening in the casino that you wouldn’t expect to happen at a casino.
Most movies about Cosa Nostra crime families made the life seem glamorous and filled with mystique. In reality, it was incredibly dull and almost bureaucratic. Her father, Harry “Big Top” Rizzo, spent most of his time running numbers, loaning money to desperate people so he could charge insane levels of interest, and having his goons launder his ill-gotten money through their family’s casino. It was, of course, fairly easy to launder money through a casino, since it’s one of the few forms of business where money is exchanged for neither goods nor services. In fact, most of the time, it is simply surrendered to the business in exchange for nothing at all.
Since anyone could enter with thousands of dollars of ill-gotten cash and leave with nothing, while Big Top Rizzo could report those thousands as legitimately earned casino profits, pretty much all of his illegally-obtained money was handed down to subordinates who were instructed to lose it all gambling in his casino. The family business wasn’t doing so well lately, but a recent acquisition might turn that around.
The most exciting part of the life, in Nicks’ eyes, were when a minor turf conflict escalated into a shootout. That seemed rarer and rarer lately, however, and after the fifteenth time you’ve seen six guys shooting at each other from behind washing machines in a dirty laundromat until the cops show up and they have to flee out the back, it loses some of its charm.
This was how she’d fallen in with a community of confidence tricksters, since that allowed for a little more creativity than organized crime, but even that had grown a little stale.
At this very moment, she was sitting on a gaudy red velvet couch in her father’s office, whose already low comfort level was made much worse by the baggy plastic slip-cover (placed there to avoid the same dust-covering that coated her father’s trusty but long-unused pulse handgun on the shelf behind her), watching the security hologram of the casino floor that flickered about two inches above the surface of an antique mahogany coffee table. She was, as she often did in this situation, praying to god that a rival gang would burst through the doors and try to start something.
Today, for the first time, she would not be disappointed.
On the corner of the hologram, she saw a young woman about her age jump up onto a blackjack table and brandish a fully automatic pulse rifle in the air. A thrill surged through Nicks. The unmistakable flicker of repeated muzzle flashes appeared from the gun’s tip, blowing holes in their very expensive ceiling. The hologram didn’t provide audio of the casino floor, but she imagined the young woman was shouting something to the effect of “EVERYBODY GET ON THE GROUND,” since the next thing that happened was that all of the casino patrons dropped to the floor and covered their heads. A few of the casino employees reached for concealed firearms, but the woman on the table quickly revealed some kind of switch in her hand and opened her jacket to reveal rows of explosives strapped to her body. She began speaking again, likely something in the vein of “ANYBODY MOVES AND I BLOW THIS PLACE SKY HIGH,” since even the armed employees stopped reaching for their guns and slowly kneeled down on the floor.
Several more young women filed in. All of their faces were covered by strategically wrapped scarves, and they were all strapped to the nines with automatic weapons. One of them used their free hand to pull an aerosol can out of her pocket, and seemed to aim it directly at Nicks.
Nicks smiled. These girls are clever, she thought. A moment later, everything viewed from that angle seemed obscured by a dark fog. The girl had sprayed over one of the composite cameras that formed the hologram. Nicks changed her angle so she could keep viewing the action, but it didn’t matter. Within a few minutes, all of the cameras had been painted over and the hologram on the table looked like nothing but a dark cloud.
She had to be a part of this action. She regretfully looked back at the safe behind her father’s empty desk. She knew she’d be in a world of trouble if she left the safe alone and something happened to its contents, but, she doubted anyone would be able to detect it. There was one safe hidden behind the portrait of her grandfather, which contained a few wads of petty cash and a handful of jewelry so that potential thieves would think they’d gotten away with something, but the real valuables were kept in a concealed secondary safe behind the vault’s false back.
She briefly considered staying there, but, thought better of it. Without her father’s handprint, retinal scan, and fifteen separate passcodes, it would take the system’s greatest hacker to break in, and from the look of these girls, they weren’t looking to commit cyber-crimes.
On her way out the door, she retrieved her father’s dusty Chekhov M2460 off the shelf, and quickly thought to grab something to conceal her own face.
This should do nicely, she thought, grabbing a metallic-looking cowl from one of the drawers on her father’s desk. She remembered he’d worn this to a recent masquerade thrown by a colleague who’d referred to him as a “snake” behind his back. Big Top thought it would be funny to show up to the party wearing a snake mask, and he’d paid handsomely to have a realistic-looking mask custom-made.
In the drawer, she also noticed a small device that she thought could come in handy, and hastily jammed it in her pocket.
She tucked the pistol into her waistband and left her father’s office, flagging down the two nearby enforcers to follow her. They quickly barrelled down the steps, but quietly slipped in one of the less conspicuous entrances to the casino floor, concealing themselves behind a row of large slot machines.
“We don’t need anybody to get hurt,” the main girl shouted, “My associates will be coming to each of you with a large sack. Consider them fare collectors. You are buying safe passage to the exit of this casino. The cost of admission is all the cash, credit cards, jewelry, and electronics you have on your person. Fail to provide this, and you will not be granted admission into the rest of your long, happy lives, and that’s not what anyone wants, is it?”
As if on cue, a woman who had been playing poker before the bandits arrived began to cry, and tried to make a break for the door.
The girl standing on the table did not hesitate to put three shots in her back. The woman fell to the floor and lay there, motionless. Her assailant announced, “Are we clear?”
The girls started to bring their bags to the casino patrons.
“It’s okay,” Nicks heard one of them say in a voice that was much softer than she expected, “you look scared so I’m not going to make you give us anything. Just pretend to put something in the bag and I’ll let you go safe, okay?”
This struck Nicks as strange. Why would a group of armed bandits be swayed by their victims seeming scared? Wasn’t the whole point of armed robbery to intimidate people into giving up their money?
Nicks looked at one of the other girls. She watched as a crying man in the suit reached into his pocket, brought an empty hand to the mouth of the sack, and open his hand.
It suddenly clicked with Nicks. “They’re just trying to cause a scene,” she hissed at the guards, “it’s a diversion, get back to the office now.”
They rushed back up to the office, but they were too late. The portrait of her grandfather was on the floor. The decoy safe was blown open and its contents left untouched. The false back was set aside with a note on it reading “Child’s play.” The duffel bag full of priceless religious artifacts was gone.
Thankfully, Nicks had thought to put a tracker in the bag. They wouldn’t get far. She turned on the tracking beacon and rushed back downstairs. The bandits were gone, as was the supposedly dead woman they’d shot.
She rushed out the front door, following the homing signal as fast as possible. The guards attempted to follow her, but she dismissed them by saying “Haven’t you two have disappointed me enough for one day? Send the rest of the guards after me in fifteen, you two take the night off. Without pay.”
This hurt their feelings, since it was her who’d left the office unattended and ordered the people in charge of stopping intruders to abandon their posts, but as so many people do in the workplace, they swallowed their objection since their continued employment meant more to them than their dignity.
Nicks knew the streets of Lohnausfall better than anyone, she’d been sneaking out from the watchful eyes of a crime boss for years and she knew all the shortcuts. Based on the movement of the homing signal, it looked like they were heading to Belafonte Park, but they were not taking the most direct route. Four narrow alleys and two jumped fences later, Nicks arrived in Belafonte Park just in time to see about a dozen young women she didn’t recognize, and one young man she did, running up to an idling shuttle with a duffel bag that belonged to her.
“Stop right there,” she shouted. She stepped out into plain view, holding her pistol in one hand and the small device in the other. She quickly hit the switch on the device and the bandits all felt a small electric charge run through their body. Nicks heard the engine of the shuttle suddenly go quiet. “Your weapons and explosives are useless. Right now, my pistol is the only one within 30 meters that is able to fire and it’s going to stay that way for the next 20 minutes.”
“Who the hell are you?” Said one of them, a Chinese girl with a pompadour standing unmasked with blood on her shirt. Nicks recognized her as the woman who’d been shot on the casino floor. She wondered how long she had to play the table to realistically seem like a casino patron before she could be “shot” to make the robbery seem real.
The girl next to her, who was still wearing her bandana, asked “Why are you wearing a corny halloween mask?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Nicks replied.
The man she recognized, Prescott, responded, ignoring her. “This is Nicks Rizzo. Remember what I told you about her?”
“Yes,” replied a short black girl wearing strange goggles, who Nicks had never seen before, “I tried that, but we’ve established that my pistol isn’t working.”
“Prescott,” Nicks smirked, “Thought you’d have been killed when you got caught punking out on the church heist.”
“Not for lack of trying,” said the tallest bandit, also still masked, but clearly identifiable as the woman who’d been standing on the table issuing commands.
“You have something that belongs to me,” Nicks said, and gestured at the duffel bag in his hand.
“I stole it, it belongs to me,” Prescott snapped, “you just betrayed me and left me to die.”
“Let’s not get caught up into what belongs to who here,” said the girl in the goggles, “it’s not like any of us acquired this bag legally.”
“We were supposed to use this to start our new life together,” Prescott said, sounding pretty genuinely hurt, “did you ever care about that?”
“Ugh,” Nicks replied, “a new life doing what, exactly? Running low-level cons on dumb wagoners? Scamming some bumblefuck cult out of their goodies?”
“With this kind of money, we could’ve gotten out of the criminal life,” Prescott sounded close to tears, “finally settled down somewhere, you know? We finally could’ve lived on easy street for the rest of our lives.”
“What fun would that be?” Nicks chuckled, and summarily unloaded two rounds into Prescott’s chest.
Out of force of habit, the bandits all raised their guns, despite the fact that they were still completely useless. Had they brought any sort of bladed weapons, there would be one lodged in Nicks’ neck before Prescott hit the ground, but as knives are better for covert operations and this was supposed to draw as much attention as possible, no one had thought to bring any.
“Don’t think I don’t know about your little trick, either,” Nicks said, gesturing her gun at the girl in the bloodied shirt. “I watched her take a fatal dose of plasma and here she is walking around, so I’m betting in a few seconds, our friend Mr. Cain will be in fighting shape again. That is, unless I do this…”
She aimed at Prescott’s corpse and fired off one more shot, this one landing directly between his eyes.
“Now,” Nicks began, “I’m going to take my duffel bag and then I’m going to go home and take a warm bath. I’m going to let you walk away from here unharmed, and I’m not going to call the authorities.”
“Sorry, I just…” the bandit from the table began, “You have us at your mercy and you’re just going to let us go? I mean, I’m not complaining—”
“Oh yes,” Nicks said, walking up to the tall girl from the table and the short girl in the goggles, laying one hand affectionately on the tall girl’s face, “you girls are just too. Much. Fun.”
“And what if we don’t let you leave,” asked the girl in the bloody shirt, “I mean, you can’t shoot all of us, we could easily overpower you.”
As though by magic, at this exact moment, the fifteen minutes Nicks had requested was up, and several dozen mob goons sprung out, all brandishing high-powered plasma hand cannons.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, these guys were 50 meters away when I disabled the weapons, so be aware: their weapons work too! Now, give me what’s mine.” Nicks gestured for the duffel bag and the bandit with the goggles handed it over. “Boys, grab this degenerate’s body and throw it in the incinerator. Last thing we need is a buncha pigs trying to jam us up on another murder. Alla prossima, belle ragazze,” she called back, “arrivederci!”
The crew piled into the shuttle. As soon as Fastwing could get the motor running, they found their way off-world and navigated back to their station.
Tripwire was there to greet them. “So, the mission went well?”
“We didn’t get the cargo, Prescott died, and that pampered little princess has his decryption key and she’s going to incinerate it,” Sasha replied dejectedly.
“Only one of those things is true,” Tripwire said, and smirked at Ariadne. “You sure are quick on your feet, cap!”
Sweettalk looked confused. “What is she talking about?”
“I knew he couldn’t be trusted. When we got into the office,” Ariadne explained, “Prescott thought I was too preoccupied with the safe to notice him dislocate his wrist to get free of the Jumper, attach it to this, and stash it in a potted plant.”
Ariadne held out a small, visibly broken, electronic device.
“It’s a bomb,” Ariadne said. “Its detonator is configured to respond to the energy of a teleportation field. Proprietary hardware of the Rizzo crime family, to keep people from attempting to teleport valuable property out of the casino. He was planning to run off with the bag and leave us with a useless, burnt-up decryption key. So, while his back was turned, I grabbed the decryption key out of the Jumper and slipped the Jumper in the bag.”
“So,” Pilar practically beamed at Ariadne’s deviousness, “you’ve had the key this whole time?”
“Not only that,” Tripwire said, “but with their safe in our cargo hold, I’m betting the Rizzo crime family won’t be dealing in religious artifacts anytime soon.”
Chapter 19: Chapter 19 -- The Parting Gifts
“I just don’t really have any use for a bunch of church junk,” Ariadne said, pulling the lumpy duffel bag out of the safe. “It’s not like I believe in this stuff— weird, it’s lighter than I expected— but it feels wrong to sell it on the black market.”
“We could give it to a museum,” Pilar suggested. “It’ll probably do a lot more to reclaim our legend than attacking the cult, I mean, think of how it looks, the cult stole all those priceless artifacts and hoarded them in a basement for decades until real Ariadne’s Angels liberated them and gave them back to the people?”
“Legally speaking, it’s probably for the best that the museum not be linked to a known criminal syndicate,” Ariadne replied, “but you know how rumors are, I’m sure people will talk.”
“Now,” Pilar said, “let’s look inside and see what we’ve won.” She carefully zipped it open and peered inside, then immediately snapped it closed again.
“What is it?” Ariadne asked, “something good?”
“Nope,” Pilar said, “we are definitely not donating this to a museum.”
“What is— let me see,” Ariadne said, snatching the bag away from her, “oh my god?!”
“What do we do with this?!” Pilar tried to maintain some semblance of calm. She was no stranger to fear, of course, the life of a pirate usually gives one a certain tolerance for danger. Surprise, on the other hand, is something that can’t really be trained away. If you have some reason to expect a surprise, the ensuing response can be avoided, but as Pilar had never quite found herself in this situation, she had no reason to expect the contents of the bag and, reasonably, found herself beginning to panic.
“Go… Go get your sister… Sweettalk too… And a bucket.” Ariadne dry-heaved. “Bucket first, time is a factor on the bucket.”
“Was it scary?” ViLaz asked Deathsbane and Sweettalk, who’d come to visit her with a large tub of graham crackers and cannoli cream.
“Was whuh scary?” Sasha asked, her mouth full of cannoli cream.
“The larceny,” ViLaz replied.
“Well, that’s the fanciest word I’ve ever heard for a Stealy Burgle,” Sweettalk said, but ViLaz didn’t seem to register the joke.
“It was scary seeing Sweettalk get shot,” Sasha admitted.
“You got shot?!” ViLaz asked with a mix of genuine concern and somewhat macabre fascination.
“That was my role in the robbery,” Sweettalk explained. “We didn’t want to hurt anyone for real, but we needed the security team to think we were a real threat, so Sasha here gave me a few doses of her healing serum and we let Spacebreather shoot me.”
Sasha hesitated. “I knew she’d be okay, but it was still scary to see my girlfriend shot, you know?”
ViLaz scooped too much cannoli cream onto a single graham cracker. “It wasn’t scary getting shot?”
“I’d trust Spacebreather with my life, even though she hates me,” Sweettalk explained, and created a small sandwich out of the crackers and cream.
Sasha moved to reassure Sweettalk, “She doesn’t hate you, she—”
“Babe, she despises me.”
“I thought she was unaware of your relationship?” ViLaz asked.
Sweettalk laughed. “Yeah, that’s why she didn’t shoot me for real.”
ViLaz looked somewhat disheartened. “Does she have a problem with your… lifestyle?”
“I mean...” Sweettalk seemed confused by this, “we work for her, so I’m pretty sure she knows we’re criminals.”
“Hey, speaking of,” Sasha asked, “you seem pretty chill with us being criminals.”
“Well, casinos are dens of sin, right?” ViLaz said, “so, it isn’t really bad if you steal from them.”
Sweettalk and Sasha exchanged a glance.
“I have problems with… like maybe half of that,” Sasha said.
“I was sorry to hear about Prescott, though,” ViLaz said, twiddling a graham cracker between her fingers.
Sweettalk chuckled. “Why?”
“I assume his death brings you sadness,” ViLaz explained, “you’ve known him for a long time.”
“I don’t even fully believe he’s dead,” Sasha replied casually, “I mean, we just saw how easy it is to fake a fatal shooting, and Prescott’s nothing if he’s not a slippery bastard.”
“He made my life hell, I’m glad he’s gone,” Sweettalk would have elaborated more on this, but she didn’t get the chance, since at this moment Spacebreather came barrelling into the mess hall.
“Sasha, Sweettalk, you’ve g—” she gagged, collected herself, and continued, “—you’ve gotta come to the mess hall right away.”
“Everything okay?” Sasha asked.
“Oh, no, you’ve eaten. Grab a few buckets. ViLaz, you come too, we’re gonna need your input when we pick apart Prescott’s dossier on the Zealot.”
The girls rushed up the stairs to find Ariadne holding the Jumper in her hand and heaving over a bucket, with an open safe on the table and Prescott’s duffel bag laying open in front of it.
None of them blinked for a moment.
“Well, I guess I was wrong,” Sasha said, “Prescott is definitely dead for real.”
Sasha was right, as they could all see, as they looked into Prescott’s lifeless, glazed-over eyes staring back at them sideways from the inside of the bag. His head had been cleanly severed, but there was still a fair amount of blood coming from the area where a screwdriver had been driven through the side of his skull, firmly pinning a blood-stained note to his remains.
The note read, “YOUR MOVE. XOXOXO NICKS”
The head was quickly moved to the infirmary and placed in a stasis jar, with a cloth over it so nobody had to look at it. Sasha, fearing that someone would be curious and peek under the cloth with no way of guessing what was underneath, decided to stick a note to the cloth reading “SEVERED HEAD - DO NOT TOSS.”
Shockingly, the crew had very little experience dealing with human remains. For the most part, Deathsbane was very good at keeping them all alive and, for the most part, functioning. Most of the actual corpses that had seen the inside of the station were medical cadavers that Sasha had gently scammed into her possession for academic purposes. There was at least one instance where Spacebreather had killed an assailant in the station, but in that instance the body didn’t stay onboard for very long.
However, for the most part, the human remains Sasha had to deal with were mostly things like amputated limbs or fingers that had been lost in tragic but absolutely unavoidable fireworks accidents. It rarely fazed her, since she was skilled enough to regrow most lost limbs and damaged organs. The regenerative serum she invented helped, but there were injuries where they would need assistance from lab-grown transplants or, in very extreme cases like ViLaz, she would enlist Ariadne’s help in crafting cybernetic replacements.
This shook her a little more than any of that, though. She briefly wondered if she’d be able to build a life support system that could sustain Prescott if she could heal his injuries, but she knew the deep wound to his brain would prove too much for her to repair to working condition. The serum would be able to repair the physical damage, with a helping hand from Sasha’s own equipment, but the brain was a unique organ.
Most human tissues and organs, even bones, can heal back the way they were before if they’re configured properly, given enough time. Set a broken bone or stitch up a laceration and leave it for long enough, it will eventually heal. Treat it properly and there won’t even be a noticeable scar. Sasha’s serum just changed that process from a matter of weeks or months to a matter of minutes or even seconds. With a quickly-applied dose of her serum, someone could survive a stab to the heart or exposure to the vacuum of deep space, and walk away feeling nothing more severe than a hangover.
What the serum could not do, however, is restore information lost when extensive damage is done to the human brain. If someone, for instance, sustained damage to the part of their brain that allowed them to create and store memories, if applied carefully, the serum could theoretically repair that damage and allow them to create new memories. It could not, however, restore the memories destroyed when their spouse’s lover leapt at them from behind with an icepick.
If Sasha were to build a life support system, she could potentially use the serum to heal the bullet wound to the brain and restore the processes of life in the head. However, she dismissed this thought quickly. It would have no memories or consciousness, no cognitive abilities whatsoever, and no potential for quality of life. Reviving it would be a waste of time and resources, and more importantly, it would be completely inhumane. There’s really no point, Sasha figured, in cheating death at the expense of life.
Once the head was covered, she hurried back to the War Room just in time to hear Ariadne tell her that she and Pilar would be taking ViLaz back to their quarters to discuss Prescott’s dossier on the Zealot, and that they would brief the rest of the crew after dinner that night.
“Oh,” Ariadne added in a hurry. “You might wanna go keep Sweettalk company, Prescott left another document on the drive and addressed it to her. I don’t know what it says, but I doubt it’s something she’ll want to be alone after reading.”
“Roger,” Sasha said, and filed into the War Room to join Sweettalk.
Chapter 20: Chapter 20 -- The Confessions
“Hey Zee,” Sasha said, “what’s the note say?”
“I’m still trying to load it up,” Sweettalk replied. “I swear I’m this close to breaking this machine, that rat bastard used some kind of old filetype and the computers are taking whole minutes to load it. He did this on purpose, he couldn’t just die without taking one last chance to piss me off.”
Of course, even if Prescott had not intentionally made the document tedious to access, Sweettalk would not have been eager to read it.
When a loved one dies, it is very often painful for their friends and family to read the notes they left behind. Knowing that every word you read is one less new part of them that’s left out there to find makes it incredibly difficult to struggle through an entire letter. This is why, for example, someone who received a wrapped gift from a loved one who tragically died before they were able to unwrap it might leave that gift wrapped on a shelf next to a framed picture of the dear departed, looking wistfully at it every year before deciding they couldn’t bring themselves to unwrap it knowing it would be the last gift they would ever receive from that person.
This was not the situation Sweettalk found herself in. Prescott was not a loved one, not family, not a friend, not even someone whose death Sweettalk was even remotely sad about, and as she would soon find out, the note was not a heartfelt goodbye, but a screed of irritating backpedaling, self-congratulation, and one single horrible truth that made the rest of it seem paltry by comparison.
“I mean, look at this,” Sweettalk said, gesturing at the faintly glowing blue holo-screen before her, “all I ever wanted from him was to leave me alone forever, and not only does he manage to screw that up from beyond the grave, he went out of his way to make it inconvenient for me.”
“I honestly don’t even know what he has left to say to you, like,” Sasha wondered, “it’s not like you were subtle about how little he meant to you.”
There was a small ding from the holo-screen. “I guess we’re about to find out,” Sweettalk said, and the two girls pulled in close to read.
The note read:
If you’re reading this, it means I’m dead. The reason I had to use such an archaic filetype is because I needed to know I’d be able to discreetly delete the file before it was discovered if I returned from the mission safely. I did the same thing with the dossier on the Zealot. Hey, sue me, you guys took me prisoner and cut off my fingers, I think I’ve more than earned one little betrayal.
I’m not a perfect person. There’s a lot of things I’ve done that I regret, and I think I’m a big enough person to admit that. You’ve seen a lot of my mistakes, even helped me with a few of them (so, you know, keep in mind that they weren’t completely my fault, you dirty dirty criminal), but there’s one you don’t know about, and I think you’ve got a right to:
Years ago, when we were both living in Xiagu, before the plague hit, I told you that I was an adventurer, which was true. Not all of my adventures were legal, but only one of them had real consequences.
One of my adventures was a smuggling run, importing exotic fruits and vegetables into town. I mean, I was basically just a salad dealer, which is a victimless crime, but that idiot miner needed some fast cash in exchange for a brick of platinum ore he’d swiped. It took me a while to piece it together, but the ore had to be from the asteroid mining company that they traced the plague’s contagion back to. That would explain why he gave me a dose of medicine to take before I handled it, eh? The miner must have forgotten to disinfect it, and the moronic customs agent I gave it to must have forgotten to take proper safety precautions when he opened it, and from there it got into the climate control system and got everybody sick, except you and me.
You don’t see reason and you have no sense of forgiveness whatsoever, so you’ll probably try to find some way to pin the blame on me, but I can’t stress hard enough that this was not my fault. It was the miner’s fault, the customs agent’s fault, and the fault of whatever half-wits were working the climate control system after they got infected.
So, before you go throwing dirt on my memory, I hope you keep this in mind: You’d be dead if not for me. Those idiots exposed everyone to a deadly virus but you survived because I got you out of town in time. I hope you remember that before you and your little friends start disrespecting the dead. I saved your life.
Sweettalk was shaking. Her knuckles were white and her fingernails had actually managed to draw blood on her palms. There were no tears in her eyes.
“Is he serious?!” Sasha asked, hoping that she was helping by articulating her anger while Sweettalk could not, “He thinks he saved your life?”
Sweettalk let out a very long, angry scream and swung her fist down on the table, cracking the lens of the hologram projector and shattering the image of the note into several faded shadows of the complete piece.
“This… this… MOTHERFUCKER killed my parents… he blamed them for it… and he didn’t even have the decency to let me die with them!!”
“Zee,” Sasha started, but it was no use.
“He kidnaps me and forces me to be his servant because, what, he thinks I owe him?!” Sweettalk slammed her fists again, ripped the drive containing the note out of its port, and hurled it into a nearby wall, where it shattered. She was now screaming herself hoarse. “And to top it all off, he waits until after he’s dead to tell me so I can’t even rip his fucking throat out?!”
“You’re scaring me,” Sasha said as calmly as she could, “please, have some water, or—”
“Where did you put his remains?!” Sweettalk roared. “I need to see that fucker’s lifeless head right the hell now.”
She must have known the answer, and Sasha must have known it would be pointless to try and calm her down, because they both immediately started for the infirmary. Sweettalk immediately saw the stasis jar containing Prescott’s remains and grabbed it, quickly deactivated it, and gripped it by the hair.
She held it up so she could make eye contact with it, then spoke calmly for the first time since she’d read his letter. “You. Got. Off. Easy.”
Next, she got a metal tray off a shelf and dropped the head unceremoniously onto it, then walked over to the biohazard incinerator, slotted the tray inside, and hit the button with the door still open.
The heat made her eyes feel dried out, and the smell was absolutely revolting, but it’s not like she’d be producing many tears anyway. She watched as the flesh boiled and then burnt away from the bone, and then watched as the bone cracked and collapsed until there was nothing left on the tray but a pile of gray ashes. She grabbed a nearby heat-proof glove and removed the tray.
“Can we dump this out the airlock?” She asked Sasha, starting to shake again.
Sasha grabbed another glove and took the tray from her. “I love you, you know. I’m glad you didn’t die in Xiagu.”
“I know,” Sweettalk said meekly, feeling incredibly guilty about regretting her continued life in front of the person who made it worth living more than anyone else, “I’m really sorry. I’m glad I lived to meet you, even if it meant spending a few years under the thumb of this… worthless excuse for a con artist…”
“Don’t be,” Sasha replied, “happens to the best of us. I’m going to go dump these ashes somewhere undignified, you go rest. I’ll see you at dinner, then we can watch a movie after lights-out, okay?”
Sweettalk almost smiled. “Okay,” she said, “I love you too.”
Chapter 21: Chapter 21 -- The Dossier
“So, before we start, what did we end up doing with the, uh,” Ariadne asked as the crew filed into the briefing room, “gift from our new friend?”
“The what?” Sweettalk asked.
“The head,” Sasha replied.
“Ah,” Sweettalk said, “don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to, boss.”
“Noted,” Ariadne conceded, “Spacebreather, would you care to catch the crew up on what we learned from Prescott’s dossier?”
Spacebreather nodded. “Our target is The Zealot, and we now know his true name to be Dr. C. Alexander Simon. Archival photos of him match up with the photo we received from La Pesadilla, and our friend ViLaz.” Spacebreather jerked her head in the general direction of a visibly distraught ViLaz. “Much of this information concerns ViLaz directly, so for the sake of her privacy, we will only be sharing details which she has agreed to disclose publicly. Everything else will be kept absolutely need-to-know.”
ViLaz seemed barely able to hold herself together. Tears were welling up in her eyes, which would have come as a surprise to anyone who was paying close attention to her eyes, since one of them was synthetic and no longer should have had the ability to produce tears.
Spacebreather continued, “ViLaz has been raised to believe that Dr. Simon is her biological father. Technically this is true, but not in the sense you’d expect. He is, in fact, her sole biological donor. According to Prescott’s dossier, ViLaz is one of three genetic identicals produced from Dr. Simon’s DNA.”
“So, she’s a clone?” Taryn called out.
Spacebreather wiggled her hand noncommittally. “See, that’s what I said too, I don’t really understand it, but… Ariadne?”
“Well, yes and no,” Ariadne explained. “For lack of a better term, the process used to create them could be described as ‘cloning,’ but it’s important to note that she while her DNA was taken from Dr. Simon, she does not seem to be genetically identical to Dr. Simon himself.”
ViLaz flinched at this.
Ariadne continued, “Prescott’s intel tells us that Dr. Simon’s area of expertise before his theories were discredited and the controversy surrounding his experiment forced him to retire in disgrace was the search for a way to induce biological immortality in humans or, failing that, maintain continuity of consciousness.”
Spacebreather restrained herself from smiling. “And when you finally get her to translate that from nerd, what you basically get is that he wanted to either find a way to make you live forever, or to put your brain in a new body.”
Sweettalk’s hand shot up.
Spacebreather pointed at her. “Not a classroom, ask your question.”
“That doesn’t sound all that controversial, I mean,” she said, “That just sounds like basic medical stuff. Sasha’s whole shtick is cheating death, right?”
“The concept is not what was controversial. The methods, on the other hand…” Ariadne began, glancing over to ViLaz, who was silently crying and hoped no one would notice. Everyone collectively decided to pretend they didn’t, and Ariadne continued, “he was spearheading a project that would allow a dying person to save their consciousness and memories to computer, and then, using the indoctrination tech we learned about from La Pesadilla, eventually download that mind into a new body. In order for the transplant to take, the body would have to be a close blood relative, and it wouldn’t do any good to have the new body die from the same thing as the old one, so the goal of the experiment was to create a genetically engineered clone designed to withstand whatever killed them the last time.”
“Rumor has it, Dr. Simon is not well,” Spacebreather said flatly, “some kind of terminal genetic condition that killed his father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and all of his relatives born with a Y-chromosome, in their 40s. Based on ViLaz’s recollection, that’s about how old our Zealot would be right around now. Our belief is that he continued his experiments after he was forced to retire, hoping to create a new host body that wouldn’t fall ill like his original body.”
“Hoping to create, as our Dossier calls it,” Ariadne paused, “a Viable Lazarus.”
The crowd murmured in shock and, again, collectively pretended to not notice ViLaz crying.
“Dear lord,” Sasha whispered, “ViLaz, I’m so—”
“Don’t call me that!” She spat back.
“I’m sorry,” Sasha said quietly, and backed off.
“My visions of the Red God always told me that I was to be his vessel in the material world,” ViLaz explained, wiping her tears off on her sleeve, “he said that my father’s body was too weak and infirm, and that he needed a strong healthy vessel to carry his word to the people.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ariadne said, “the whole time you knew you were being used as an… an organ farm?!”
“The Red God told me I was to be his prophet,” ViLaz replied. “It just all seems a little too coincidental, if the Red God spent all those years telling me to give up control of my body, and now I find out my father created me as a host for himself. It’s… blasphemous that he would use an ancient and beautiful religion just to manipulate people like this.”
There was a fairly stunned silence through the entire hall, which is more or less to be expected whenever someone’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, suddenly become a central fixture in a conversation where they were not expected. Of course, in most situations, it would simply be a matter of opinion, and most people would simply let it slide rather than get into a theological debate that no one could ever possibly definitively win.
Ariadne had two reasons for not letting this particular statement slide. The first was that she was a very passionate Atheist, and unfortunately had a rather nasty habit of being somewhat condescending when discussing it, especially towards those who still subscribed to the religion she practiced as a young girl. The second, and the much more important reason was that ViLaz’ statement about her religious beliefs was objectively, factually incorrect.
“V— Sugar …” Ariadne caught herself before using the name that would remind ViLaz of her father’s machinations, and knelt down to meet her gaze, “first of all, people have been using religion to manipulate people since the first caveman found a rock to worship. Second, I hate to break this to you, but the Red God cul— church— is not an ancient religion.”
ViLaz looked confused and upset. “What?”
“The earliest written references to it are in the last few years,” Ariadne said, “most of the scripture we’ve gathered just seems like watered down Christian Dogma, we think that’s why he had all those Church documents and artifacts. He was studying the growth of an effective religion so that he could pervert it to his own ends. His servants just told you it was an ancient religion to put the pressure on to do what he wants.”
Something dropped within ViLaz, as though she’d just looked at her entire world from a distance only to realize it was nothing more than a rubber balloon floating five feet in front of her face.
“The Red God really was just him all along, wasn’t he?”
Ariadne sensed that she had perhaps been too blunt, and quickly tried to turn the conversation around. “Come on, let’s get you to the library. Fastwing?”
“Yeah boss?” Alicia asked from somewhere near the end of the crowd.
“Take… our young friend to the library, find her a really good book, read it with her, and help her pick out a new name. I think there’s a lot more to her than just a Viable Lazarus, and I think she deserves a name that captures that.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alicia said, and walked up to ViLaz. “Come on, babe, let’s get you a nice cocoa too.”
“Cocoa?” She asked as she was ushered out the door.
“Oh man,” Alicia said, “your day is about to get so much better.”
Once they were out of the room, Spacebreather continued the briefing. “The cult, the whole religious aspect, was just a front to get more test subjects. From what ViLaz has been telling us, right now he can only permanently take over one of the clones’ bodies if they consent to the transfer. But, there’s a reason why everybody who goes into the Life Centers seems to come out a suddenly devout missionary.”
Ariadne picked up here, sensing that Pilar didn’t like describing the more technical aspects of the dossier. “With the data Prescott gave us, our best guess is that the Suffering Test they administer at their life center uses the same tech from the Immersion Pods. It overwrites people’s personalities entirely and turns them into mindless zombies who live only to serve the cult. He shows them some horrible vision of the hell they’re going to, and they’re so scared they sign up for the conditioning. I’m assuming that’s how he got the Acolytes to raise ViLaz the way they did, so during our assault on their compound, let’s try to remember that it’s generally unethical to kill the mind-controlled.”
“We think he probably appropriated the name Ariadne for his prophet character in order to capitalize on our legend,” Spacebreather explained, “he probably figured there was no real Ariadne and that it was just some name punk kids gave when they were arrested, and decided that claiming to have the Real Ariadne would bring in lots of new curious people that he could subject to his brainwashing.”
Sweettalk, having taken her earlier admonishment to heart for the first time ever, spoke without raising her hand. “This is all really nice to know, but Prescott promised a Silver Bullet. How does any of this help us take him down?”
“The implants in the clones’ heads are linked to a master unit directly controlled by Dr. Simon. It’s how he was able to make ViLaz see the Red God and—” Ariadne paused for a moment and considered the ramifications of telling a partial truth, then decided to give only the information her crew absolutely needed to know, “It’s how we’re going to find him. All we have to do is reactivate the implant and with a little clever hacking thanks to yours truly, we should be able to pinpoint the other implants it’s linked to and reveal the true location of their compound. We’re going to need time to prepare, and a much larger strike force than we had at the casino. Deathsbane, I’d feel safer if you picked out an apprentice and started showing her the ropes, we’re going to need a medic on the ground and another on call in the ship with Fastwing.”
“Sasha will remain in the ship, her apprentice can join us in the assault.” Pilar said flatly.
“I thought we were past this,” Ariadne sighed, “we got kidnapped and she got arrested last time you—”
“And last time we let her go planetside with us, someone died.”
Sasha turned bright red, which Sweettalk noticed and felt a near-compulsive urge to defend her. “Nobody that mattered! And besides, you can’t possibly blame her for—”
“Do me a favor and shut your goddamn mouth, Sweettalk,” Spacebreather said.
Sweettalk was taken aback, but stood up and tried to stretch to Pilar’s height. “What did you just say to me?”
Sasha was somewhat stressed. Her sister was wrong, but she still didn’t want to see her get punched, especially not when she already held such a grudge against Sweettalk as it was.
Ariadne desperately wanted to keep the peace, so she attempted reason again. “Remember what Beam said—”
Pilar swung around to face Ariadne and held up her index finger to cut her off. “I… Said… No… End of discussion.”
Spacebreather then stormed out of the room, leaving everyone too stunned to respond.
Sasha stood up. “Thank you for standing up for me,” she said to Sweettalk and started walking toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Sweettalk asked.
“I’m finally standing up for myself.”
Chapter 22: Chapter 22 -- The Confrontation
“Hey!!” Sasha shouted when she finally caught up with Pilar, who had been continuously storming ever since she’d initially stormed out of the briefing room. “What the hell was that display?”
“You’re not going on that mission,” Pilar said firmly and started to walk faster.
“Yes, I am,” Sasha told her. “You know you don’t own me, right? I love you, but there is a limit to how much I’m willing to take from you.”
“I won’t let you go,” Pilar replied, and her walk turned into a run.
Sasha picked up the pace to match her and turned after her into a long corridor leading to Pilar’s quarters. “You can’t stop me,” she replied. “I’m your sister, not your prisoner.”
Pilar was now almost in a sprint, and finally managed to get into her quarters and attempted to close the door when Sasha’s foot slid into the gap, preventing it from closing all the way.
“I’ve got all day if you won’t let me leave, Pilar,” Sasha snapped. “You can either have this talk, or fight me, but either way I think we’ll be working a few things out today.”
“I don’t want to have a whole discussion about this,” Pilar said, considering whether or not she would be able to close the door without hurting her sister’s foot.
“Well that’s too damn bad,” Sasha replied. “You haven’t wanted to have any discussions lately, have you? Just pronouncements about where I’m allowed to go and what I’m allowed to do. Do you have any idea how isolating it is to be the only girl on this crew who’s not allowed to contribute? It’s not even about the assault on the cult anymore. I can’t even go on basic supply runs.”
Pilar opened the door and looked Sasha square in the face. “Missions are dangerous. I can’t risk having you be a part of them.”
“So what, now for the first time ever you don’t trust my abilities?” Sasha asked, “Can’t have bumbling, idiotic Deathsbane on the crew because maybe she’ll save someone’s life?”
Pilar snapped back, “No! That’s not—”
“Can’t risk letting your sister breathe air that hasn’t been recirculated 7000 times?”
“People die on these jobs, Sasha!” Pilar shouted, sounding strained.
“Yeah, I know!” Sasha matched her sister’s shout. “I’m the medic, you think I don’t know how dangerous this is? You need me there to make sure people don’t die!”
“You aren’t listening,” Pilar cried, and it was at this point that Sasha noticed that Pilar actually seemed genuinely distressed. “Prescott died on this mission, he was shot in the head and no amount of your special medicine could have saved him.”
“You think I haven’t considered that?!” Sasha hissed, “Did you think that was my first day on the goddamn job? Is it somehow my fault when someone is beyond saving?”
“NO!” Pilar screamed, and tears started streaming down her face, “IT’S MY FAULT, IT’S BEEN MY FAULT ALL THE WAY BACK TO WHEN WE WERE KIDS.”
This took Sasha by surprise. She lost the train of her yelling and was focused entirely on Pilar’s face. She hadn’t seen her cry like this since before their parents died.
“Do you even remember four years ago at all?” Pilar sobbed. “An angry mob was beating down th-the door and we just… we just agreed to die…”
“We lived,” Sasha replied.
“Do y-you know how close we came?” Pilar asked. “It wasn’t just the mob, either… It was Weaver, and the Ramoses, you were in the line of fire and I put you there.”
Sasha’s brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
“Every time you go on a mission, you are in mortal danger. That’s my fault.”
Sasha just waited for her to elaborate.
“I know what I am, Sasha,” Pilar looked at her, and Sasha felt she could properly see her again for the first time in years. “I’m a criminal, I’m a thief, I’m a—”
“Everyone here is a criminal, Pilar,” Sasha said, “You’re really not alone in that, and besides, Criminal doesn’t always mean Bad Person.”
“I’m the only murderer,” Pilar replied.
Sasha didn’t know how to respond to this.
“Don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true. Ariadne’s only ever killed in self-defense, and only suicidal Divoratori troopers who had no independent thought. I’ve killed thinking beings… human beings…” Pilar paused and the silence could’ve been cut with a particularly dull knife. “Ariadne doesn’t like to talk about how her mother really died, but she wasn’t the one who landed the killing blow. I snapped her mother’s neck, and then she took herself off life-support out of spite.”
Sasha was desperately trying to make sense of this. “No, Rosario was a genocidal monster. She would’ve killed you if you let her go.”
“I didn’t have to torture her,” Pilar said, and more tears started to stream down her face. “I didn’t have to… enjoy it so much…”
Pilar slumped down and sat on the side of her bed, staring off into space a bit.
“I got you into this life, Sasha,” she mumbled. “I’m a psycho and I turned my baby sister into a wanted criminal. Me and Ariadne, we built this life for ourselves and just took you along for the ride, and now I’ve got you patching up my gunshot wounds and ever since all that stuff with Weaver, I can’t stop thinking about how much harm I’ve done to you, and how every time someone points a gun in your face, it’s my fault.”
Sasha sat down on the bed right next to Pilar and gave her a loose hug.
Pilar began to cry even harder. “I bet mom couldn’t stand to look at me right now.”
“You’re not a psycho, and you’re not a bad person.” Sasha grabbed a nearby cloth and wiped away Pilar’s tears. “Besides, mom would love to look at you, because you’re covered in tattoos just like dad.”
“Even though I’m a murderer?” Pilar asked, and leaned into Sasha’s shoulder.
“I’ve been there for every single killing blow you’ve ever delivered,” Sasha hugged Pilar tighter. “Three of them were to defend yourself against armed gunmen trying to kill you first. Another four were to save Ariadne’s life. And then there were six to save mine. And the last one was the person who ordered Mom’s execution on trumped-up charges.”
Pilar almost laughed. “Well, when you put it like that…”
“You did whatever you had to do to keep us safe,” Sasha said, “even if you sometimes do it in a boneheaded way. She’d be proud of you.”
“Thanks. I’m sorry I’ve been keeping you so cooped up, I’ll… be better about it, okay?” Pilar gave Sasha a squeeze. “And you know, as long as you’re on the field, I don’t have to worry about anyoneelse dying.”
“What about Prescott?” Sasha mused.
“I’m really just surprised it wasn’t Sweettalk, or, you know, me who did it.” Pilar said with no trace of sarcasm in her voice. “Like, honestly every day that dude left his house without getting shot in the face must have been a statistical miracle.”
“You know, I think Mom would have something to say if she could see you know,” Sasha said thoughtfully.
“Ariadne is way too pretty for you,” Sasha laughed, and it actually coaxed a laugh out of Pilar too. “I think she’d like Sweettalk too.”
“I mean, I guess, but— wait, why would mom even have an opinion on Sweettalk?’
“Do you remember a few years back when you said you’d know when I started dating?”
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah, that was like three girlfriends ago.”
“Oh my GOD.”
Chapter 23: Chapter 23 -- The Trail
The location of the Red God compound was surprising for only one reason: It was exactly where it had been the last time they had been there.
It would be reasonable to expect that a covert and very illegal facility would relocate after being discovered, especially if that facility was floating in space and had a very large rocket at the back which could very easily push it somewhere else without anyone noticing.
Two signals floated just outside of the patrolled borders of the system, as remote as it could be while still being towed through space by the Sun’s gravity. This seemed to confirm their suspicions that the clones were being kept in the same facility where ViLaz had been discovered.
After all, it wasn’t like the cult could remove or deactivate the implants to leave a false trail. For one thing, they had no way of knowing the pirates had reverse-engineered the signal to track the other implants, but more importantly, this was their means of controlling the clones. Removing the implants would defeat the entire purpose of having created clones in the first place.
There was, however, a third point on the map, close to the first two. Under normal circumstances, they would assume that this was the Zealot’s own implant. These were not normal circumstances.
“Bad news from downstairs,” Ariadne sighed as she walked into her quarters and found Pilar reading a book, “two weeks of decryption only to find that the third implant is coming from a relay and we can’t trace its real location”
“A relay?” Pilar asked, marking her book since she had immediately known she would not be able to continue reading.
“They aren’t sending a live feed, the Zealot must pre-record the visions he sends to the girls, beams them to a relay, and then the relay beams it to their implants. There’s a block smack in the center of the relay, so I can’t trace where the signal is sent from.”
“You, for the first time ever, can’t hack through a digital barrier?” Pilar raised her eyebrows.
“A digital barrier would be no problem. This isn’t that kind of barrier.”
“And what, pray tell, has you so stumped you can’t break through it?”
“I’d guess about five feet of empty space,” Ariadne said. “I mean, I can only guess about how much empty space, but we’ve been trying to break into their system for weeks, and one thing has become clear: the device that interfaces with the girls’ implants and the device that receives input from Dr. Simon have no connection between them. My guess is, he sends the visions to the receiver where they download to a removable drive, and then some lackey removes the drive and physically walks it over to the relay, where it interfaces with the implants.”
“So, we’re back at square one?” Pilar asked.
“Nowhere close. I can still trace the origin of the signal if I’m in the same room as the receiver. Luckily, the receiver is conveniently located at our next stop.”
“So then, we’re launching to get the girls?” Pilar asked.
Ariadne nodded. “We’ve got to make sure they’re safe onboard before we move on Dr. Simon anyway. If we finish him off, the acolytes will have no reason to keep them alive.”
“Their security is largely built around their remote location,” Pilar offered, “I don’t think they’re prepared to fight off attackers, they’re counting on the idea that nobody will stumble across them. Once they figured out where we were, Sasha and… Sweettalk… were able to break in undetected to rescue us.”
“Still not used to it, huh?” Ariadne asked.
“I just can’t believe I didn’t see it,” Pilar responded, “I mean, I think I came really close to messing up our relationship for good. My own sister, and she spent a year of her life thinking she had to hide her relationship from me?”
“I should probably apologize too,” Ariadne said, “I’ve known for weeks and I didn’t say anything.”
“No, I’m glad you didn’t,” Pilar replied. “I didn’t marry no narc, and besides, you’re family to Sasha. I’m glad she can tell you stuff without you worrying that you’re going to rat her out to her overprotective big sister.”
“You know, it’s funny, I never thought I’d say this, but it reminds me of—”
“No,” Pilar chuckled and cut her off, “that was different, she was just oblivious, this was being kept a secret.”
“I miss Flax some days,” Ariadne laughed. “I’d never met a lesbian with such terrible gaydar, and she was so easy to get a rise out of.”
“You know what really gets me, though?” Pilar brushed a hair out of her face, “Sweettalk drives me up a wall sometimes, but she’s absolutely perfect for Sasha. I mean, look how much that brash, impulsive girl has managed to bring her out of it despite my best efforts to keep her stuck in there.”
“I think she should come with us on the raid. Give you a chance to get to know her, and, uh…”
“Have her do the dirty work of tactfully explaining to two clones who don’t know they’re clones, that their religion is an actual scam, and that their father grew them as glorified organ farms without upsetting them so much that they refuse to leave with us?”
“Yeah, I really do not want to be in charge of that part,” Ariadne said. “Let’s pull together a smaller strike force to extract the girls and the receiver, and leave Fastwing in charge of rallying the troops for an assault on the Zealot’s location as soon as we have it. You, me, Deathsbane, and Sweettalk for sure. Ghostrunner is a must-have on a stealth mission.”
“Taryn’s been training as Deathsbane’s apprentice,” Pilar suggested, “She’s got a real flair for medicine and it’d probably do her some good to shadow Sasha in the field.”
“You mean Uprising, right? After all, she showed a lot of courage standing up to us.”
“You’re getting better at the names,” Spacebreather told her. “Yeah, bring Tar… uh, Uprising along too.”
“I’ll grab ‘em,” Ariadne said, “Meet me onboard the Thread in 20.”
“I just don’t really think it matters how far apart they actually are,” Taryn explained as they quietly filed into the airlock. Their helmets were internally soundproofed and linked by a communications system, so they could hear everything going on around them, but speak openly without fear of being overheard. “They could be six inches apart or 50 feet apart and it would still be just as impossible to hack.”
“Yeah, but if you had to guess,” Ariadne replied. “I say five feet, Pilar says two, Sweettalk four, Deathsbane ten, I mean, it’s a pretty straightforward wager.”
“If I say a number, will you stop asking me?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I will,” Ariadne responded.
“You’re not taking this seriously.”
“You said I had to make a guess, not that I had to care about winning the bet.”
“Ugh, fine,” Ariadne said, “What about you, Ghostrunner?”
There was nothing but silence on Ghostrunner’s channel.
“I copy. I’m just not talking.”
“Seriously, just give her an answer, she won’t stop talking about how far apart these machines are until you do,” Uprising said.
“Five feet and one inch,” Ghostrunner replied, and her mic went silent again.
“That’s not cool,” Ariadne replied as she quickly set to hacking the access panel that would open the seal and allow them passage.
“Roger,” said Ghostrunner.
“Jesus, Prescott designed a shitty security system,” Ariadne said, “Someone with an eighth grade education would be able to find the backdoor he put in here! How did he ever sell one of these things?”
“You know an eighth grade education is all you’ve got, right?” Spacebreather reminded her.
“I’m saying!” Ariadne called back, “I just unlocked every door and disabled every alarm in this place and it wasn’t even hard.”
“To his credit,” Pilar shrugged, “He was the system’s greatest bullshit salesman.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure to pour one out on his grave when we get back,” Sweettalk said as they drew their weapons and quietly moved through the seal and into the compound, “right into the catbox.”
“Catbox?” Uprising asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Deathsbane said flatly.
“Deathbane, Uprising, with me. Spacebreather and Sweettalk, watch our six. Ghostrunner, meld into the shadows and stay close, I don’t want to see you until we’re leaving unless the shit hits the fan.”
“Roger,” said everyone but Ghostrunner, who had already vanished without anyone noticing.
“That’s what I like about that girl,” Ariadne explained, “she takes pride in her work and she’s got great fashion sense.”
They stealthily moved down the corridor with weapons raised approximately chest-high, making sure to glance through the small glass window in each room to check for an immersion pod.
Most of the rooms did not have what they were looking for, and instead were full of red-robed Acolytes either poring over screens full of code or deliberating over something that looked important. If discovered, they would be wildly outnumbered.
The immersion pods would be in the last three rooms they checked, which only made sense because they stopped checking rooms when they found the right ones. At the end of the long corridor were three doors. In the spaces between them stood two boxy machines about the size of a regulation trash can, each of which had an antenna on top, one long-range and one short-range.
“Sweettalk, how tall are you?” Ariadne asked intently.
“Four foot eleven.”
“With the boots and the helmet, though, you’d be exactly five feet, yeah?” Ariadne asked.
“You’re about to make me lie down between these machines to see if they’re five feet apart, aren’t you?”
“Dammit,” Ariadne muttered, “Still three inches left over. Ghostrunner was closest without going over.”
Ariadne swiftly plugged a compact screen into the device with the long-range antenna, while Deathsbane and Spacebreather entered the first room and began to pry the pod open.
After a few seconds, they managed to get it loose with a satisfying hiss, and a girl who looked exactly like ViLaz, to the last detail, stood before them.
“You’re on,” Spacebreather said, and Sweettalk took off her helmet so the girl could hear her.
“Hello, ViLaz,” she said, and ViLaz looked incredibly confused. “It’s very important that you come with us, okay?”
“Who are you?” She asked, “are you with the church?”
Sweettalk considered this for a moment, and then decided there would be plenty of time for the truth on the ride home. “Yes, your father sent us, we’re here to take you somewhere safe.”
“Father says if I leave, the Red God will cleanse me from the universe with fire,” ViLaz replied apprehensively, and did not move from the inside of her pod. “I had a vision of the future, myself engulfed in flames for defying the Red God’s will.”
What she had actually seen was not a vision of the future, but a video recording of the past, when her identical sister was lit on fire, but as this girl was unaware she had a sister, and had been directly told the video was her own future, her confusion was understandable.
“Yes,” Sweettalk explained, making it sound as though she wholeheartedly believed every word of the lies she was telling, “of course that’s why we’re here. We’ve discovered a new holy site, and the Red God needs you there right away.”
The girl looked unsure, but too afraid to question it. She stepped out with them, and they ushered her out to the waiting crowd.
“This is our friend Dr. Sasha,” Sweettalk said softly, “before we go any further, she needs to check for, uh, purity of heart… in the… back of your head…”
This was not Sweettalk’s best lie, but it is difficult to hold that against her, given that it worked.
“This will only hurt for a moment,” Deathsbane said as she set to work applying a local anesthetic and removing the implant from the back of ViLaz’s head as quickly as possible.
Spacebreather and Sweettalk managed to get the second pod open, and roused the other girl, who also looked exactly like her sisters.
“Hello, ViLaz,” Sweettalk started in on the same story as earlier, and this ViLaz looked just as confused. “It’s very important that you come with us, okay?”
“Who are you?” She asked, “are you with the church?”
“Okay, that’s uncanny,” Spacebreather said through her comm.
“No time to chat,” Ariadne replied. “Get her out of there, now. We’ve got company.”
“Yes, your father sent us, we’re here to— HEY!” Sweettalk was cut off by Spacebreather pushing past her and scooping up the girl fireman-style over her shoulder.
“YOINK!” Spacebreather shouted, and made a break for the door. Sweettalk followed, and moments later, they were all running down the hall as quickly as possible, as the girl over her shoulder pounded on her back and yelled as loud as she could.
“I thought you said we had company,” Spacebreather said, panting heavily.
“We will,” said Ariadne, who also had one of the girls over her own shoulder. “Someone on the other end must have detected me before I could get the coordinates and alerted security, we’ll have acolytes on us in two minutes.”
“Especially with the racket this one is making. Did you get the chip out of her head?” Spacebreather asked Sasha.
“Yeah,” Sasha replied, “but I’m not gonna have time to operate on that one before we get on the ship.”
“Here,” Spacebreather said, and deposited the screaming girl into her sister’s arms. “You and Ariadne take the girls ahead and get on the ship, I’ll try to cause enough of a ruckus that they don’t realize the girls have been taken and light up the implant in her head.”
“You can’t be—” Sasha began, but Pilar jumped in.
“Yes, I can. I’ll be fine. Just get her to the ship and have it ready for when I get back.” Pilar quickly ran back the way she came and drew both her weapons.
Sasha turned to Sweettalk. “Watch her back, okay? I’ll see you soon.”
“I love you,” Sweettalk said to Sasha as she ran after Pilar.
Sasha, Ariadne, Taryn, and the two girls would make it back to the ship without interference, as Pilar and Sweettalk were able to hold off their pursuers for long enough that Sasha could safely remove the implant and save the third ViLaz from a fiery death. In fact, they held out for quite some time before being subdued and captured.
None of the crew actually wanted to leave without Pilar or Sweettalk. In fact, they very literally had no choice. Soon after their capture, the airlock simply disengaged from their ship on its own, and the entire station fled faster than the Thread could follow.
The morale aboard the Thread had never been lower. Sweettalk and Spacebreather were captives and for a moment, they thought they would have no way of finding them.
And then a message appeared across the ship’s main viewscreen.
“We’re fine. I am in control of the ship. Nobody can find me. Will keep Spacebreather + Sweettalk alive. Bringing the whole thing back to base. Sure hope the spiderweb still works. xoxox Ghostrunner.”
They had, in the confusion, completely forgotten that Ghostrunner had even come with them. She would not be insulted by this, after all, it was her job to go unnoticed, and she had performed it spectacularly.
Ariadne breathed a sigh of relief. “Set the ship’s autopilot for home.”
“I can get us home,” Sasha said, looking a bit frazzled, “I just need to—”
“No,” Ariadne said, walked over, and gave Sasha an overly tight but appropriately comforting hug, “the autopilot will get the ship back home in a few hours. The emergency teleporters will get us there now. We need to be ready for when the girls get home.”
“With a massive ship full of angry cultists,” Uprising pointed out.
“They should be so lucky,” Ariadne said, “they just captured Pilar Spacebreather and someone who matters to her sister. Do you know what Pilar kills for?”
“To protect the people she cares about,” Sasha muttered, thinking back to their conversation a few weeks previously.
“Exactly,” Ariadne said, “One handcuffed Pilar against a hundred armed cultists? They’re completely outmatched. You just wait, there will be three living people on that ship by the time it gets back home.”
Chapter 24: Chapter 24 -- The Ethics Of Killing A Mind-Controlled Person
“Do you ever notice how we always get captured?” Spacebreather asked Sweettalk, who was, like herself, shackled to the table in front of them.. “Like, you’d think after eight years we’d start building a rescue plan into the original plan.”
“At least it’s us who got captured,” Sweettalk said, “I’m pretty sure I can glamor us out of these handcuffs, and I know there’s not a person on this ship who can take you in a fight. Do you think Ghostrunner got off the ship?”
“I sure hope not,” Spacebreather replied, “knowing her, none of them have any idea she’s here. Having an ace in the hole isn’t a bad thing.”
“Heh,” Sweettalk chuckled.
“Ace in the hole?” Sweettalk said expectantly. “That’s you.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I mean, we’re locked up, in a world of trouble, we’re ‘In The Hole’ if you will, and you’re kinda asexual, so… Ace in the Hole.”
Pilar let out a long angry sigh.
“You’re just mad you didn’t think of it first.”
Pilar scoffed. “See, this is why you drive me up a wall sometimes. Always so flippant, always so cocksure, even when it’s absolutely not the moment for it, you crack a joke. You can’t take anything seriously”
Sweettalk rolled her eyes. “Some people appreciate a bit of levity in dire situations.”
“Like your sister.”
Pilar sighed again. “Maybe I’ve been a bit unfair to you.”
“You’re a lot harder on me than you are on any of the other Whiptails.”
“Yeah,” Pilar replied. This surprised Sweettalk, who didn’t think Pilar realized she was treating her differently. “It’s just, like, in the past few weeks I’ve done a lot of introspection, and I think I might be projecting some of my own self-esteem issues onto you.”
“I literally can’t imagine why.” Sweettalk was not being sarcastic.
“When I first found you, you were an orphan girl who’d lost everything, you were next to homeless, and you had this… fiery streak in you, this anger at the system, at cruel fate, at the childhood you’d lost. I recognized it right away. That was the same fire that consumed me. Everything I hate about myself, I saw in you, and that… wasn’t fair of me. I wanted something better for you than the path I went down, I wanted to be sure that you wouldn’t end up being anything like me. It wasn’t fair of me to dislike you… and I don’t dislike you, not really… but I totally understand why you don’t like me.”
“Respectfully?” Sweettalk snapped after a moment, “That’s a total load. Of course I was angry, but do you know where I’d be if I wasn’t on your crew? I’d either be dead in some ditch somewhere or running low-level cons like Prescott to keep a roof over my head. I was already a criminal before you found me, so if anything, you just made sure I didn’t need to be one to survive. And no one ever said I didn’t like you, in fact—”
Sweettalk stopped short.
“Go on,” Pilar said sheepishly.
“In fact, I’ve always looked up to you. You’re cool, you’re smart, you’ve mastered just about every fighting style in the system, you’ve got a great relationship with the biggest nerd I’ve ever met, you’re not cocky about any of it, and when I was a kid, you strutted into my life like a knight in shining armor and showed me that there was a place in the universe for lost girls like me. If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t give a shit about your approval.”
The room fell silent for several seconds before Spacebreather spoke. “Do you ever notice that a lot of our crew’s problems could be solved if we stopped bottling things up all the time?”
“You and Sasha are definitely sisters.”
They both chuckled, and Pilar asked, “so, do you have a plan to get us out of here?”
“My silver tongue is useless without someone to con,” Sweettalk said. “How about your muscles, can you bust out of these handcuffs?”
“Not without breaking my wrists. Makes me wish Ariadne was here, there’s not a shackle in the universe she can’t escape from.”
“Or Sasha, she could mend your wrists pretty quick if you could get loose.”
“Seems we’re at a bit of a loss without our better halves,” Spacebreather mused. “We’re gonna have to play off each other. When they come in, here’s the plan—”
The returning crew was greeted by a very surprised Alicia at the receiving pad.
“Prep a recovery team,” Ariadne said promptly, “Ghostrunner is en route with the cult’s ship. If we’re lucky, they’ll be here within three hours.”
“Are we preparing for an attack?” Alicia asked.
“No, but make sure the spiderweb is fully operational,” Ariadne explained, “we need it to disable the ship as soon as it arrives in our airspace without frying the onboard tech. We still need the coordinates from the onboard relay. Sasha!”
Ariadne asked, “how’s your anxiety?”
“Your girlfriend and your sister are being held captive,” Ariadne said, “they don’t get along and it’s the first time they’ve been alone together since your sister found out you were dating.”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Fair course of action. Honestly, after all this time we should really just start building a rescue plan into the first plan we come up with.”
Sasha pondered this. “I wish Mingxia was here, she always knows what to say.”
“And I wish Pilar was here,” Ariadne replied, “she always makes me feel protected when we’re under fire.”
“Well, we’re at a bit of a loss without our better halves,” Sasha said, “so we’re going to have to lean on each other. Now, it might sound crazy, but I’ve got a plan. Can you still establish a remote connection to their systems through the relay?”
The red-robed Acolyte sat at the table across from Spacebreather and Sweettalk. He was a gray-haired white man whose only noteworthy feature was a prominent bushlike quality in his dark eyebrows.
“Why is it that every time the Zealot’s glorious vision is disrupted, we always trace that disruption back to the same group of teenage miscreants breaking into our compound?”
“Offense taken,” Spacebreather attempted to cross her arms before realizing her shackles would prevent her from doing so. “She’s a teenager. I’m a fully-grown miscreant.”
“I don’t care how old you are,” the Acolyte hissed. “Your little friends made off with our property, they’ve somehow taken control of this ship, and frankly, it doesn’t exactly make me want to do you any favors. So, you should know that the only reason you’re alive right now is that we need something from you.”
“Bite me,” Spacebreather replied, and the Acolyte got visibly angry.
“What she means is,” Sweettalk said calmly, “what do you need? I’m sure we’d be able to help.”
“Where have they taken our property?”
Pilar scowled at the idea of young girls being referred to as property, and promptly raised her middle finger in response.
“Spacebreather, that’s not doing us any favors. I’m sorry, sir, she’s just a bit on-edge. Talk to me, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
“We know they can just brainwash us into doing whatever they want,” Pilar growled at Spacebreather, “that’s how they got this waste of a hairpiece to do their bidding, so why should we cooperate willingly?”
“I don’t particularly want to be brainwashed,” Sweettalk responded. “Just because this guy has no free will doesn’t mean I don’t value mine.”
“What are you talking about? The Zealot’s Acolytes are pure of faith. We do not require conditioning to fulfill his glorious vision.”
“Let me get this straight, you’re all totally in control of your own actions?” Sweettalk asked.
“Of course,” the Acolyte responded, and Pilar smirked, “and we won’t be forced to condition you, if you tell us what we want to know. Now. Where is our property?”
At this point, Pilar spat directly in the Acolyte’s face.
“That’s it,” the Acolyte bellowed, and called in two other large men to assist him. “You two, in here now. Take this insolent girl to the armory and execute her by firing squad.”
Pilar smiled broadly. The two men unlatched the bar that kept her cuffs secured to the table and walked her out of the room.
“Oh, you’ve done it now,” Sweettalk laughed. “I hope you’ve made peace with your god.”
“What are you talking about?” The Acolyte asked.
“You just signed the death warrant of everyone in that firing squad, and yourself,” Sweettalk explained, “that woman is a force of nature. She’s unstoppable. You’d better cherish every remaining minute of your life, I’d guess the number is already down to single-digits.”
Pilar was standing with her back to the wall of the armory.
“Last words?” She asked.
“Make ‘em quick” one of the twelve members of the firing squad said. Pilar could roughly gauge that they were standing six feet in front of her from his voice.
“You misunderstand,” said Pilar, “I am offering you your last words.”
“Me, handcuffed, blindfolded, unarmed, up against a dozen grown men with fully loaded pulse rifles trained on me. If you went and got a few dozen more guys and some bigger guns, it might even be a fair fight. So, if any of you have any last words, now is the time to say them.”
“She’s just trying to stall,” another said. “Fire on my count. Three. Two. O—”
It was at this moment that Pilar dropped suddenly to the ground and twelve pulse rounds left scorch marks in the approximate area where her torso was just moments before.
Despite her arms and legs being shackled, she still managed to move with relative swiftness. Planting both her arms on the ground behind her, she managed to swing both of her legs around into the knees of the leftmost Acolyte, sending him toppling into the man next to him and creating a domino effect that at least managed to disorient the entire line.
Pilar took advantage of this opportunity to remove her blindfold, but didn’t have time to do much else, as the Acolytes were back on their feet.
Three of them managed to fire off their weapons but Pilar was able to avoid both shots in time, and in the same fluid motion, pulled her rear end and legs over the shackles on her arms. Her hands weren’t free, but at least they were now in front of her.
Two more Acolytes fired off shots and she dodged them as she got to her feet. She needed flawless timing if this was going to work. One of them was carefully taking aim for a headshot. She had to be faster than him, and she’d need to execute this move perfectly, or else she would be finished for sure.
One moment before he pulled the trigger, Pilar launched herself up into the air several feet and snagged her handcuff chain on an ornate light fixture hanging from the ceiling. The pulse intended for her head now fired through the space where her head had been, which was now occupied by the chain holding her legs together.
Now that her legs were free, she twisted her torso so the chandelier would spin and kicked them out, knocking five of the firing squad to the floor.
She dropped back to the ground as another Acolyte took aim at her and, thinking quickly, she swung the chain between her wrists around the neck of one of his compatriots and pulled him in front of her.
The shot landed squarely in the man’s throat, severing Pilar’s chain. He toppled to the floor, dead, but not before Pilar was able to grab his gun.
She got three shots off before anyone could realize what had happened. Three Acolytes slumped down on the ground.
Pilar now found herself in the center of the room. Five more of the armed men took aim and pulled the trigger. Pilar ducked just in time to dodge the crossfire. One shot hit a nearby munitions rack, knocking several grenades to the ground near the ankles of the three men standing furthest back, and the other four shots landed in the chests of the other four men, who’d been standing behind her before she’d ducked.
Three Acolytes were left, and her weapon was overheating. It would be unable to fire without another heat sink. One of them attempted to physically tackle her so the others could shoot her more easily, but she managed to spin her weapon around and break his nose with the butt of the rifle, knocking him back into his two peers.
With the half-second this afforded her, Pilar grabbed one of the dead Acolytes’ weapons from the ground, and took aim at the three remaining men.
“Should’ve picked better last words,” she laughed, aimed at their feet, and fired. The plasma round connected with one of the grenades, setting it off, and the explosion created a chain reaction that set off every explosive in the immediate area.
“She’s been gone for eight minutes,” Sweettalk said, “I’d say that gives you about forty five seconds to live. Are you prepared?”
“Your friend is dead,” the bushy-eyebrowed Acolyte said, “and you will be as well if you don’t cooperate soon.”
“You know, I’ve never been on the other side of good-cop-bad-cop before. I can’t believe it worked.”
“My good cop got you to tell us that you weren’t mind-controlled, meaning my friend knew it wouldn’t be unethical to kill you in self-defense. My friend’s bad cop got you to detach her from this table and hand over twelve shmucks with guns for her to take. And in about fifteen seconds, she’ll be at the door with all twelve guns.”
“You’ve got to give up this absurd fantasy,” the man said.
“Nine… eight… seven…” Sweettalk said irreverently.
The Acolyte insisted, “your friend is dead. Just tell us wh—”
There was a knock on the door that stopped him cold. A moment later, Pilar kicked down the door with, as promised, eleven rifles, several dozen heat sinks, and a few grenades in a bag slung over her shoulder, in addition to the rifle she was aiming at the Acolyte’s head.
“Your firing squad is dead,” Pilar said. “Surrender command of the ship and I let you keep the top of your skull.”
“You can’t take all of us. If I die, you’ll die too.”
“Devotees of the Red God cult,” said a loud, clear voice suddenly coming over the loudspeaker. “This is the pirate Ariadne. I am now in command of your ship. I assume several of you have been killed or at least seriously maimed by my associate onboard. Cooperate with her directives, and you might live. Fail to cooperate and we will open the airlocks. My associates are equipped to survive this. You are not.”
“She’s bluffing,” the Acolyte said, “No way she could control the ship’s subsystems remotely.”
“And just to prove I’m not bluffing…” the voice said, “Ghostrunner, cut power to the lights.”
The lights switched off immediately.
“I’d listen to her,” Pilar said, “She won’t hesitate to space you clowns, and she sounds like a great kisser.”
The Red God sat on his fiery throne and watched on a security monitor as 437 red-robed bodies fell through the airlock and into the void of space.
“It’s only a matter of time before they find me,” the Red God said to the empty room, knowing he would be heard anyway. “All free-thinking acolytes fall back to defend the Pit of Fear.”
A gravelly voice replied, “sir, we can still access the Life Center facility from the access points on Mars. Should we activate the Thralls to go in and reclaim the ship?”
“The access points are compromised,” the Red God replied, “these meddling teenagers have set the portal device adrift in space. The only things left in the rental properties now are the information desk and the Suffering Tests. Try to go further than that and you’ll meet the same fate as the failures who couldn’t prevent a handful of misguided sorority sisters from taking my property.”
“We could redouble our efforts,” the voice said back, “We could amp up the power on the Suffering Tests. If it works, we should be able to implant the programming even without the subject’s consent.”
The Red God growled, “you couldn’t have figured that one out before letting them take my new body?”
“Sir, it’s not reliable, your transferral is too important to entrust to an emergency measure like this.”
“The Thralls will have to wait,” the Red God said, “They’ll be no use if these children find me. First, we kill them at the Pit of Fear and put my mind into its new host by any means necessary. Then there will be nothing standing in the way of a unified Martian Paradise.”
“A glorious kingdom of morally perfect servants enthralled by their king,” the Acolyte prayed reflexively.
“I’ll see you at the Pit,” the Red God said impatiently, “arm yourselves to the teeth.”
Chapter 25: Chapter 25 -- The New Addition
“You didn’t have to space them,” Sweettalk said, seemingly to the ceiling as the recovery crew lurched the disabled ship back to Ship Trap.
“They were going to die either way,” said Ghostrunner’s voice from a speaker on the wall, “I heard them planning it. The boys in the engine room said they were all prepared to blow the ship to hell and kill everyone onboard rather than let us figure find our way to Dr. Simon. I actually minimized casualties by flushing them out the airlock.”
“Where are you, anyway?” Sweettalk called up to the ceiling. “Are you in the engine room?”
“I am everywhere,” Ghostrunner’s voice called back, “I am one with the ship.”
“That joke is getting old,” Sweettalk yelled, “You’re gonna have to come out of there eventually!!”
“Go easy on her,” Pilar laughed, “she saved our lives and now I don’t have to feel guilty about having the highest body count on the crew.”
“And thanks for being so gentle, by the way,” Sweettalk shouted.
“You were handcuffed to the table and I managed to seal off the passage before Spacebreather got flushed into space again. You were never in any danger.”
“How do we even still have any air to breathe?” Sweettalk called up.
“Found an emergency tank of air in the panic room. It has enough fresh air to fill the sealed panic room for a year, but if you open the door, it can fill the entire ship for about two hours.”
“Oh joy,” Sweettalk said
“More than enough for the 15 minutes until we’re hooked up to Ship Trap,” Spacebreather mumbled. “I bet we don’t even blow this place up, Ariadne’s just gonna weld it right to the hull and turn it into more quarters.”
“About time we put on a new addition!” Sweettalk shrugged.
“Hey, so, uh, while we have a minute… I want you to know…” Pilar said quietly, “you’re… good enough for Sasha. And I was proud to fight by your side today.”
“I’m sure that was hard for you to say, so I won’t make you repeat it,” Sweettalk said, smiling, “except when you tell Sasha, and I will be recording that.”
“Fantastic,” Pilar said sarcastically.
“I have a proposal, though,” Sweettalk said. “We have less than fifteen minutes left before we get back to base. We should spend it talking about something that’s not work-related. I feel like we could make Sasha really happy if she found out we’d bonded right after we scared the bajesus out of her.”
Pilar said nothing.
“If you don’t want to—”
“Do you like Val Deimos?” Pilar asked, “It’s my favorite show.”
Sweettalk grinned. “I sure do.”
A little under 15 minutes later, the recovery crew managed to bring the ship into the Docking Bay, and Pilar and Sweettalk were able to safely disembark.
Within a second of leaving the ship, they heard a loud “Zee!” and Sweettalk started running towards Sasha, embraced her, lifted her off the ground, and began a long, very passionate kiss.
“Hola, querida,” Pilar said to Ariadne, and gave her a short but affectionate kiss. “Good timing with the loudspeaker, really drove home a point”
Ariadne said, “I mean, that sister of yours is some kind of psychopharmacological genius. While I was trying to break into their systems, she was doing live maintenance, jabbing me with all sorts of needles and hypo-sprays to keep my hands steady and stave off the panic attacks, so really, you should be thanking her.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Pilar said, “as soon as she’s done having her face eaten. My god, she’ll have to come up for air at some point, yeah?”
“Oh, hush,” Ariadne said. “You remember being that age.”
“You were that age three years ago,” Pilar reminded her. “I miss when they were hiding it from me.”
“Come on,” Ariadne elbowed her in the arm. “This is at least a little bit cute.”
“You come on,” Pilar said, “They might be here a while, let’s get onboard that ship and get the coordinates we need.”
“So,” Pilar asked as Ariadne once again plugged into the relay, “how are the girls adjusting?”
“Better than the first ViLaz did, that’s for sure,” Ariadne said.
“Well, they didn’t get set on fire,” Pilar said, “and they’ve got her to help them through it.”
“Fastwing is counselling them now. It’s all been a bit of a shock to them, I mean, their upbringing is so much more messed up than we knew. None of them knew about the others, and the cultists went to great lengths to make sure they had exactly the same nature and nurture. I mean, down to the minute, they made sure those girls had exactly the same experiences, and when they took just one of them out, the implants recorded any memories they made and plant them in the others’ heads. These girls have absolutely no sense of individual identity, if you ask them a question, they all respond in unison, even though they’re not linked anymore.”
“Spooky. Maybe they should spend some time apart, really come into themselves.”
“I don’t think so,” Ariadne said. “I mean, these girls are basically sisters, closer even, they’ve got all the same memories, and this is the first time they’ve ever even met.”
“What’ve we been calling them?” Pilar asked, “I mean, the first one was pretty set on getting rid of ‘ViLaz’ anyway, and I bet the other two will be too when they find out what it means.”
“We’ve been calling them The Triplets, for now,” Ariadne replied, wiping sweat from her brow as she tapped away at her small screen.
“And how do we distinguish between them?”
“We don’t,” Ariadne said. “Maybe that’ll change eventually, but for the time being, they don’t seem to have any interest in being treated as separate people.”
“Well, then, they’ve come to the right place.”
“You know that’s right,” Pilar laughed, “I’m sure Sasha will come up with something anyway.”
“What’s really weird is,” Ariadne said, “I noticed something about the first Triplet before the raid.”
“What’s that?” Pilar asked.
“She was crying out of both of her eyes,” Ariadne said, “the artificial one too. She shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Maybe you’re a better cyberneticist than you gave yourself credit for.”
“Or maybe,” Ariadne explained, “I mean, I build some pretty great bionic elements, Sasha uses her serum, the girl’s got advanced genetic engineering… who knows what’s causing it, but I think her body is actually integrating with the cybernetic elements.”
“That’s some crazy science-fiction talk,” Pilar said.
“Well, what isn’t, these days?” Ariadne joked. “Nonetheless, when Sweettalk is done trying to suffocate your sister with her mouth—”
“—Well don’t keep saying it.”
“—we should have Sasha check her out. Meantime…” Ariadne twisted something on the side of the machine and a bright spark flashed somewhere inside of it, “ …I’ve got the coordinates. This asshole is holed up in an underground bunker on Phobos.”
“So we find him, take him out, and reclaim our legend?”
“And more importantly, keep those girls safe. Those cultists are going to keep on coming back for them unless we make sure they can never turn them into viable hosts for their decrepit founder.”
“What?” Ariadne asked.
Pilar attempted to suppress her accent and do a rough impression of Ariadne’s voice: ““Mátala. I want her head.”
“Oh, that was before,” Ariadne said, walking with Pilar towards the ship’s exit, “Now, I want her dad’s head.”
“Ah,” Pilar grinned, “Mátalo, then.”
As they left the ship, they found Sweettalk and Sasha still locked in an embrace, now whispering some incredibly sugary things to one another.
“My god,” Pilar said as they walked past. “Are we just an old married couple?”
“Pretty sure we always have been.”
The triplets sat patiently in the infirmary.
“Sweettalk and Deathsbane,” ViLaz said to her sisters while they waited for Sasha to arrive, “we’re friends with them.”
“These girls took me from my home,” both sisters said together in reply.
“That was no home,” said ViLaz. “There was no love, or warmth, or safety there, things I didn’t even realize existed until they were given to me, here. This? This is a home.”
Her sisters considered this for a moment.
“Sasha and Mingxia have been so welcoming. Sasha’s going to be here in a minute, I bet she’ll bring us candy, too.”
“Candy?” Both sisters asked.
“You’re going to love it.”
There was a long pause.
“Is it true?” Both sisters asked.
“Is what true?”
“I didn’t know there were others,” the sisters replied. “I didn’t know there was a chip in my head. Is it true that the Red God is just a ruse?”
ViLaz looked at her feet, and after a moment, ViLaz responded, “Father created us to keep himself alive, and he created the Red God in order to get followers for his sick testing.”
“And what of this Ariadne?” The sisters asked, “We were using her legend to draw people in, but she seems to have as many followers as father ever did. How has she built this?”
ViLaz thought about this, but had no answer.
“Same way she found you,” Sasha said from the doorway, “she finds kids without a proper home, shows them there’s a better world, and makes sure they know they’ve always got a safe bed and a hot meal waiting for them in it.”
“It was my understanding that she was originally trying to kill us,” ViLaz replied.
“Well,” Sasha said, “Everybody makes mistakes. If it makes you feel any better, my sister’s the one who’d have done the actual killing, and she never believed you were the true threat.”
“That,” ViLaz said, “only makes me feel slightly better.”
“It doesn’t make me feel much more comfortable,” her sisters said.
“Oh good!” Sasha said, “the slight difference in your experiences has already started to yield different responses to external stimuli.”
“I don’t understand,” all three said at the same time.
“And we’re back to square one,” Sasha laughed. “Look, I know you don’t want different names, but as of now I’m your primary care physician, so, for medical reasons, I’m going to need to be able to tell the difference between you. I have a fun idea, though. Bracelets!”
“Bracelets?” all three asked.
“That’s not getting old at all,” Sasha said, handing each of them a hand-woven bracelet woven from plastic threads. “Yes, bracelets. One in each primary color. Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. You can go by whatever you like outside sickbay, but, until you come up with names of your own, this is how I’ll address you. Is that okay?”
The triplets did not reply.
“I’m going to take that as a yes.” Sasha explained. “So, I have some good news for the three of you.”
The triplets looked at her expectantly.
“Gotta learn a better way to communicate, girls,” Sasha looked at her clipboard uncomfortably. “You three are as healthy as any person could possibly be. I mean, it’s almost impossible.”
“I was kept on a strict diet in the—” all three began.
Sasha interrupted. “No, you don’t understand. All three of you are in perfect physical condition. Even the one of you who’s been fed on nothing but junk food for weeks.”
Two of the triplets fell silent. Cyan, the triplet who’d been with the crew the longest, eventually responded. “Surely a few weeks of lax dietary habits can’t have affected me all that much, and besides, you outfitted me with all sorts of—”
“—that’s the strange part,” Sasha replied, “Ariadne and I did a good job with our cybernetics, but… we didn’t do this good of a job. We did enough to keep you alive, with minor tweaks to ensure your comfort along the way.”
“I don’t see what—”
Sasha continued undeterred by the interruption. “—but, see, the other day, when you found out the truth about the Red God—”
All three triplets visibly winced.
“—you did something you shouldn’t have been able to do. You cried out of both eyes. Ariadne noticed it and she’s had me monitoring your progress ever since.”
Magenta and Yellow remained silent. After a moment, Cyan replied, “is there any other way to cry?”
“In a typical case, no, and that’s the issue we’re facing,” Sasha explained. “Your case is not typical. You have a bionic eye with a synthetic lid. We didn’t install tear ducts. Logically, you should only have cried out of one eye, and once we noticed, we’d have built you some artificial tear ducts to make you feel a little more at home in your skin.”
Cyan looked at her feet. “Isn’t that good, that I’m recovering better than expected?”
Sasha chuckled. “Of course it is. But, more importantly, this tells us a little bit about your… unique physiology. See, you three are unlike any organism in the universe. You are designed to survive and adapt in any conditions. Your body has integrated with its cybernetics on a level we can’t even understand without further study.”
All three triplets looked at their respective feet.
“Your, uh, creators have done something with your genes that make you far more resilient than the average person. Your bodies integrate with bionics so readily that it could put prosthetic technology decades ahead in just a few days.”
All three triplets remained silent for a moment.
“I’m basically saying that you can’t get sick, and that you’ve done medical science a huge favor!”
The triplets did not respond.
“At some point in this conversation I’m going to need some input from you ladies,” Sasha sighed.
All three replied, “Am I a freak?”
“Hey,” this took Sasha aback, not because of what they asked, but because of how sadly they had asked it, “don’t say that like it’s a dirty word. Average people write books about freaks like us.”
The triplets responded, “you’re a freak too?”
Sasha smiled. “Name another gay Martian teenage pirate doctor. There’s nobody in the system like me but me. Trust me, a freak is a good thing to be.”
The triplets remained silent.
Sasha continued in the hopes of evoking some sort of response from them. “‘Freak’ is a badge of honor around these parts. It means you’re special, and soon, the three of you will all find out what kind of beautiful, brilliant freaks you are.”
Each triplet smiled a bit, but Cyan smiled the broadest. She’d told them, Sasha was someone they could trust.
“Miz Sasha?” Yellow asked.
“My— Cyan told us to ask you about…” Yellow trailed off.
Magenta picked up where she left off, “She told us to ask you about candy?”
Sasha flashed a wide grin. “Good thing I brought my prescription pad,” she said, writing something practically unintelligible on a slip of paper. “Each of you take one of these slips and bring it up to Cookie. She’ll know what it says.”
She handed each of them a prescription that, despite their complete lack of legibility, clearly did not say the same thing.
“I think you’ll be feeling at home here sooner than you think.”
Chapter 26: Chapter 26 -- The Assault
Later that day, several dozen heavily-loaded shuttles fell into orbit over Phobos. Ariadne was upset that they didn’t take more time to plan before moving on Dr. Simon himself, but as Spacebreather pointed out, they didn’t have time to stall. If they waited more than a few hours, the cult would have a chance to move him.
Most of Ariadne’s ground forces disembarked about half a kilometer from the facility’s entrance. Several dozen spacesuit-clad armed acolytes were standing outside exactly one of the caves, so the crew figured that was likely to be the door the Zealot was behind.
“Bring the noise, querida,” Ariadne said into her comm and the last remaining ship immediately did several flips in midair and fired off several plasma bolts that, despite the ship’s advanced targeting system, somehow managed to not hit any hostiles. After a beat, she scoffed, “Showoff.”
“You love it,” Spacebreather’s voice returned through the comm. “Get in there and knock these guys out so I can join you on the ground.”
“We’re on our way,” Ariadne chuckled.
“You got five minutes,” Pilar’s voice buzzed back, “and then I stop missing on purpose.”
“Won’t be a problem,” Ariadne replied. “Te amo, terminado.”
“Terminado,” Pilar agreed, and switched off her comm.
“Do you think the Triplets will be okay with Fastwing?” Sasha asked Sweettalk on a private channel.
“Yeah, I mean, you got their chips out, right?”
“That’s not what I mean,” Sasha replied, “I feel like we shouldn’t have brought them with us. We just got them away from these creeps.”
“They wanted to come,” Sweettalk said, “If we can get Dr. Simon in custody I’m sure they’ll want the chance to confront him, and if the shit hits the fan, they’re with the best pilot in the system–”
As if by magic, Pilar took this opportunity to do a showy corkscrew maneuver over the crowd of acolytes, narrowly avoiding several shots from their weapons, and releasing a cloud of multicolored smoke to disorient her attackers.
“–Okay, the second best pilot in the system. If we get hurt, Alicia will get them to safety.”
“Plus,” Sasha added, “I’m betting she does something cool with their hair.”
“She has a gift,” Sweettalk agreed. “Point is, we just convinced your sister it was bad to keep people grounded for their own protection, so we sorta screwed ourselves out of the right to object when the triplets want to come along.”
“Heh,” Sasha laughed. “You know, I only just now got why that’s funny.”
“Just the idea of keeping someone ‘grounded’ in a spaceship.”
“Mm,” Sweettalk agreed, “and now that you’re not grounded anymore you’re actually, you know, on the ground.”
This went on in this fashion for a little while. The rest of the crew didn’t know how grateful they ought to be that Sasha and Sweettalk were speaking on a private channel. There are only so many jokes on the word “grounded” that two people can make before their friends and loved ones feel compelled to intervene, and there is little point in attempting to quantify exactly how far past this point Sasha and Sweettalk went as the crew took their positions and systematically knocked out each of the acolytes guarding the entrance. By the time they had finished, Sasha and Sweettalk were both breathless with laughter from their rapidfire, almost vaudevillian exchange of “grounded” puns.
“Everyone grab one,” Ariadne called out on the public comms.
“Why?” Lefthook replied, “I mean, there’s a limited amount of air in those suites, can’t we just… let the problem take care of itself?”
“We’re sending a message,” Ariadne replied. “Ghostrunner and Spacebreather killed hundreds of their acolytes in self-defense. These guys don’t pose a threat to us.”
“You know they’ll wake up eventually, right?” Lefthook responded, begrudgingly joining the others in hauling the unconscious cultists through the airlocks.
“Once they’re inside, we’ll cut their air lines,” Ariadne explained. “They’ll live as long as they don’t try to go back outside. Once we’ve got Dr. Simon back on Ship Trap with a gun to his head, we’ll contact the authorities and let them deal with these guys.”
Pilar came marching over the ledge with a very large assault rifle slung over her shoulder. “Don’t forget to take their guns, these things are choice.”
“Fair point. Take their guns, we don’t know how many others are in here anyway.”
“Girls!” Alicia called, coming around the corner with her styling kit, “I thought you might enjoy some new hairstyles! I mean, I like a nice bob as much as the next lady but–”
She was left speechless at the sight of the Triplets. They sat together, glowing a slightly artificial blue. Alicia could not tell which of them had been cybernetically augmented. All evidence of injuries had vanished. It was as though all three girls were simultaneously completely organic and completely synthetic. There was something about it that caused Alicia to want to look away on an instinctive level, but she couldn’t.
“What is this?” Alicia finally stammered out.
“Something new,” all three girls mused in a single voice.
“What did you do?” Alicia asked, starting to rush towards them but quickly recoiling, out of fear that they might be contagious, or even radioactive.
“We touched,” they responded, “and understood. This is what we were built for. Evolution. Adaptation. We were designed to grant our father immortality. Our bodies will incorporate anything that facilitates our continued existence, and adapt to survive anything that threatens it.”
“Whatever doesn’t kill you,” Alicia muttered and trailed off. “I’ll be damned…”
“We have to go into the cave with them,” The Triplets responded. “Their plan is going to fail.”
Several minutes and about fifty unconscious and several seriously wounded acolytes later, Ariadne and Spacebreather reached the door to the throne room with Sweettalk and Sasha in tow.
“Stand watch,” Ariadne directed Lefthook to lead the other other troops in the corridor. “Non-lethal force if you can, but if someone’s going to die, don’t let it be you. That goes for all of you.”
“Yes, cap!” The girls replied, and unholstered their weapons.
A moment later, Pilar kicked down the door to the throne room. “ON THE GROUND, ASSHOLE!”
A single acolyte manned a computer terminal that seemed to have no screen and only two silver joystick-like appendages for controls.
“I SAID GET THE FUCK ON YOUR KNEES IF YOU WANT TO KEEP THEM,” Pilar bellowed.
The Acolyte fall to his knees.
“Where is Dr. Simon?” Ariadne asked calmly, “You’re gonna want to talk fast or else my associate is going to find some creative ways to make you glad those robes are already red.”
“He is here!” He whimpered. “The Zealot is all around us.”
“Babe, do I have your permission to start cutting off fingers again if he doesn’t get serious?” Pilar asked.
“I’d listen to her,” Sweettalk chimed in, “Last guy she took a finger from ended up decapitated.”
“He is all around us!” He pleaded. “Please, look!”
He gestured at an ornate golden table near the center of the room.
“Spacebreather, keep your gun trained on his head. If he tries anything funny, see if you can take it off in one shot,” Ariadne slowly started inching toward the table.
“With pleasure,” Pilar stroked the trigger of her rifle carefully.
Ariadne looked down on the table, through the inset glass to what lay within.
Lying motionless inside the table was an unmistakable face with a neatly trimmed gray beard and a straight, pointed nose.
“This is not Dr. Simon,” Ariadne replied. “This is his body. Where is Dr. Simon?”
“Back up,” Sasha asked. “Dr. Simon’s body?”
“Prescott had to tell me something to convince me it was worth it to help him,” Ariadne replied. “This body has been dead for fifteen years. Dr. Simon, on the other hand–”
“–Viable Lazarus,” Sweettalk gasped. “Lazarus, we should’ve seen it all along. They’re trying to bring him back from the dead.”
“I’m only going to ask you one more time before I let my beautiful associate indulge her itchy trigger finger,” Ariadne replied. “Where is the server containing Dr. Simon’s consciousness?”
“I already told you,” the acolyte began crying, “He is all around us.”
“Look at the walls,” Sasha marveled, “Sis, they’re–”
“Databanks,” Ariadne replied, “We’re standing inside the most massive supercomputer in the system.”
“Do we just smash them?” Pilar asked.
“If you destroy the servers, you’ll kill more than the Zealot,” the Acolyte offered, “The databanks are full of lost souls who’ve seen the light of the Red God.”
“What is he talking about?” Pilar asked.
“He’s using a few thousand human shields,” Ariadne was disgusted. “All those people who took a Suffering Test for this wackjob were signing up to be brainwashed. He hollows out their head and fills it with their programming, and their consciousness ends up imprisoned here. If we unplug the whole system, there’ll be no way to restore the people he’s got under his little spell.”
“You, crybaby,” Pilar jabbed the Acolyte with her rifle, “dial this jerk up, how do you talk to him?”
“If he wishes to send messages, he can, but in order to speak directly with him… without ViLaz as a relay, we have to enter the system ourselves to gain an audience with him. There’s a psionic interface–”
“–And how do you go about deleting individual files from this system?”
“I don’t see a screen or a keyboard or else I might be able to hack in.”
“No synthetic computer can interface with His prison,” the Acolyte whimpered, “Only a human brain has the processing power necessary to access the system.”
Ariadne chuckled. “I’d almost admire it if it wasn’t so evil. He’s actually built a computer I can’t hack.”
“So, how do we get in?” Pilar asked.
“Stands to reason that each drive in these databanks contains one consciousness,” Ariadne said, “So, if I can access the system, I should be able to identify the drive with administrator permissions, then all we’ve got to do is yank that one out, take it home, and format it.”
“Patch in, like, connect your brain to this thing?” Spacebreather asked incredulously.
“Have you ever seen a computer more powerful than my brain?” Ariadne asked.
“Yeah, babe, this one,” Pilar snapped gesturing at the entire room made of computer that they were standing in, “it’s absolutely out of the–”
Ariadne very pointedly said nothing at her, which managed to stop Pilar cold.
“There’s no keeping you from doing this, is there?” Pilar sighed.
“I’ll be safe,” Ariadne promised. “In and out.”
“You’d better,” Pilar warned. “If you die, I’m coming after you.”
Ariadne smirked. “You’d better not.”
Ariadne planted a kiss on Pilar’s lips and then got immediately to work.
Chapter 27: Chapter 27 -- The Machine
Ariadne stood in a massive church. Row after row of pews faced a shrine to a massive red god with flames in his eyes. There were hundreds of crash-test dummies lining the pews, all wearing neatly-tucked in white dress shirts with black pants and ties.
This is wrong, She thought. I was expecting this to be like any other computer, but, it had to be yet another church.
“Get out here, Simon,” she yelled, “You can’t hide forever!”
“I am here, child,” The voice boomed from the shrine, “I’m not hiding at all. Do you like my church?”
“You know, some people would call these crash-test dummies an offensive portrayal of people of faith!”
“What were you before you lost your faith?”
“I’m not playing this game, Simon, get out here and fight me.”
“Spoken like a true Catholic.”
“Now I’m really going to kill you.”
“You know, I adapted a lot of Christian scripture for my church. They have a lot of good ideas, but like all faiths, they leave far too many things up to the judgement of imperfect humans. It is in free will that sin is born. Ergo, destroy free will and create a perfect word.”
“I wouldn’t want to live in a world without imperfect humans,” Ariadne said, “no such thing as a perfect one, besides.”
“Oh yes there is,” Simon’s booming voice replied, “They’re all around you. I spent years programming them myself.”
“This is what you think of your followers?”
“Heavens, no. They are kept safe in the vault. When my followers give their souls to me, these are the souls that inhabit their bodies. Flawless. Devoid of free will. Incapable of sin. The perfect personality for the perfect world. When everyone has one of these beautiful little programs in their head, I will sit on the throne of an everlasting Martian paradise, free from conflict and suffering, for all eternity.”
“Not gonna be easy without the children whose bodies you want to steal.”
“Organ farms, nothing more,” Simon’s voice replied. “I’ve done nothing wrong. Besides, the Lazarus Vessels are in the building. I’ll get them back yet.”
“Like hell you will. We’re going to unplug you, format your drive, and use it as a digital recorder for Pilar’s favorite shows.”
“And you can live with that?”
“I wouldn’t try to appeal to our consciences, they will absolutely allow us to live with killing a child-abusing cult nutjob.”
“And the souls of the thralls?”
“What do you mean?”
Simon’s voice chuckled. “My mind is hard-coded into the operating system. If I am removed without being replaced by another administrator, the entire system will be deleted. There will be no restoring my thralls to their old selves.”
“That’s just evil,” Ariadne shuddered.
“Why do you think I needed ViLaz to take my place willingly? I literally cannot leave this prison without another administrator taking over. I have the admin key. The three ViLaz vessels collectively have the other. Two keys are needed to make the transfer without deleting the system, including myself, and I can’t have that.”
“I hope you know,” Ariadne replied, “there’s no version of this where you walk away alive. Even if you take over one of the triplets’ bodies, we won’t hesitate to kill you. I know how to build an android, I can free her and make her immortal while you’re rotting in the ground.”
“Yet you won’t do the same for me,” Simon replied. “You could build me a new body and free me, then we could fight in the real world.”
“And kill all the people trapped in this computer?”
“What if I told you there was no way to restore them either way?”
The Triplets burst through the door and spoke once more in unison. “The thralls are all dead.”
“Excuse me?” Spacebreather replied.
“Their bodies, at least. He sent out a signal 10 minutes ago and ordered them to take poison.”
The color drained from Sasha’s face and tears began to well up in her eyes. “Why would he do that?”
“To send a message,” the Triplets replied, “now all that’s left of those people is the data stored in this system. If I don’t take his place, within the hour, he’s going to transmit to a backup server on another planet and the whole system will be wiped. Their souls will be lost forever.”
“What are you going to do?” Spacebreather asked.
“I have to take his place, there’s no other way.”
“There’s another way,” Sweettalk said, “Just… Let me think.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Spacebreather snapped.
“I know, but… Did you say there was a transmitter?” Sweettalk rubbed her temples.
“Well, we break that,” Sweettalk says, “and he can’t escape.”
“He could still delete their souls manually,” the Triplets replied.
Sweettalk squeezed her eyes shut and thought for a moment. “We need figure out how to take that power away from him.”
“I’ve got it,” Ariadne said, suddenly letting go of the controls and causing everyone to jump, since she had been completely still and silent up until this point.
“Got what?” Sweettalk asked eagerly.
“Something he said while I was in there,” Ariadne replied frantically. “Girls, you have the key to this– He gave you the power to stop him and he doesn’t even realize it!”
“What did he say?” Spacebreather asked impatiently.
“Two administrator keys. He has one, the three of you collectively have the other. All we need is a ⅔ majority and he’s unbeatable– we might have to trick him a little, Sweettalk I’ll need you for that, but… Spacebreather, you and Deathsbane go break that transmitter like you’ve never broken anything before.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about but you’ve never been more attractive to me,” Spacebreather replied.
“That’s weird and I love you. Get to it.” Ariadne said. “Sweettalk, Triplets, I’m gonna need all of you to come in with me. We all have our roles, and I’ll explain before we go under. Triplets, you’ll need to take a quick vote as soon as we get in there, and it’s very important that you all give the same answer. Can you handle that?”
The triplets looked at each other, and then, all at once, said “I think we can manage it.”
Chapter 28: Chapter 28 -- The Line In The Sand
“This is weird,” Ariadne said, holding up a finger to gauge the direction of the wind in the vast, red Martian desert.
“You’re telling me,” Sweettalk said, “The atmosphere on Mars shouldn’t be thick enough for there to be a gentle breeze like this.”
“Okay, nerd, I meant that we’re standing on the surface without spacesuits.” Ariadne rolled her eyes, a fact that was only apparent due to the small purple light she’d recently installed in her goggles to indicate the direction her eyes were pointing. She had made this modification partially because her sarcasm was often lost on those she was speaking to, but mostly because it looks cool.
“You thinking you’re in a position to call anyone a nerd is hilarious,” Sweettalk replied. “Does everyone know their part?”
Ariadne and the girl dressed in all black standing next to her, formerly known as ViLaz, nodded affirmatively.
“Good, because he could be here any minute.”
“He could be here right now,” Ariadne muttered, “last time he took the form of a disembodied voice, he has complete authority here.”
“Well,” Sweettalk scratched the back of her head, “not complete authority.”
Ariadne smiled, but nudged her in the ribs to indicate that she should shut up and not blow the con.
They waited a few moments in silence before Ariadne finally called to the sky “GET YOUR ASS DOWN HERE, CABRÓN!”
“I’ll thank you not to speak to me that way,” Dr. Simon materialized behind them, causing all three of them to jump as though they were housecats and a person, who they did not realize was in the room, moved their foot slightly.
“Glad you could make it,” Ariadne said.
“Don’t lie to the man,” Sweettalk replied. “Mr. Simon—”
“—Doctor Simon,” he corrected.
“Whatever Simon,” Sweettalk continued, “I have come to represent my client in this transaction. You should be advised that she is no longer using the name ViLaz. I am informing you of this in the interest of full disclosure and fairness, as our negotiations here, once agreed to, will be coded into the system and will be binding to both of us.”
“This is ridiculous, I will do no such—”
“Mr. Simon, I would advise you that it is in your own interest to make this concession. I have been advised that code written in this way can be very specific, and if you refer to my client as ViLaz, you could be forced to give us what we want without getting what you want. Is that clear?”
Dr. Simon grunted. “Fine. What should I call her?”
“We did some deliberating about that, it was a little complex since you decided to make three of her, but for nerdy reasons, this iteration has agreed to be called Kay. Now, before we go any further,” Sweettalk said, dragging the point of her toe across the sand in front of them, creating a clear line, “this is a threshold that you will not cross for the duration of the negotiations. We know how to strip you of your authority without killing anyone. If you violate this boundary before we approve the transaction, you give my associate Ariadne permission to take you out. Is that clear?”
Dr. Simon chuckled, clearly not believing that they had any such power. “Whatever.”
He didn’t notice Ariadne smirk.
“We want a guarantee of my client’s safety after the transaction,” Sweettalk explained calmly. “A guarantee that no one will have the authority to delete or alter her consciousness and memories after the change is made. We would like the same guarantee to be made of the other people stored on this drive.”
Dr. Simon chuckled again, somewhat derisively. “Those people are already dead, child.”
“Their bodies are, but we have a skilled cyberneticist on our staff, not to mention one hell of a doctor. Given time and resources, with the data we’ve collected in our treatment of one of your ‘daughters,’ we can construct them new bodies.”
“If you were really capable of that, you could do it for me,” Dr. Simon suggested, “and then you wouldn’t have to put young V— I’m sorry, Kay— in my place.”
“We considered that,” Sweettalk responded with as much confidence as she could muster given that she absolutely had not considered that, “we felt you would be unable to trust us in a body that our captain could simply hack and remotely shut down. We are negotiating this transaction instead as an act of good faith.”
“You’re right,” Dr. Simon said, “had you offered, I would not have accepted.”
“So, now that we’re on the same page,” Sweettalk said, “I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen.”
There were several seconds of silence, that Sweettalk milked until she was sure he was about to speak, at which point she gestured to a small marble pedestal behind her, which definitely was not there a moment before, on top of which was a metal lock box with two locks on the front.
“My client will turn her key, and you will turn yours.”
Kay turned the key in the box, and Dr. Simon nodded and stepped towards the box.
“Breaking the antenna isn’t the problem,” Pilar explained, “I mean, it is and it isn’t.”
“First explain how it isn’t,” Sasha replied hurriedly, “then explain how it is.”
“It isn’t because the real problem is that as soon as we do, every armed guard in this place is going to storm the room guns-blazing and I’m not sure even I’m up to that challenge,” Pilar said, prying a panel off the antenna and tossing it onto the bodies of the technicians who had, up until recently, manned this transmitter, “and it is because of, well, this—”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Sasha said, sighing exasperatedly, “How many cartoons did this guy watch as a kid?”
A red, old-fashioned countdown clock connected to several tubes and wires blinked 5:00 every few seconds.
“I’m willing to bet he set this place up to clean itself out of evidence if he ever had to beam away,” Pilar explained, “if he left the antenna behind, someone could use it to locate where he’d been beamed to, so these vents around the ceiling? They probably spew out antimatter or hot plasma when the timer’s up.”
“Five minutes?” Sasha asked.
“I’m guessing that’s how long it takes to be sure he’s beamed away,” Pilar replied.
“Yeah, he probably wouldn’t want to risk a partial transfer of, well, basically his soul.”
“Now, look at all those wires— they’re attached to each part of the transmitter that’s absolutely necessary to its operation. Smart money says it starts counting if any of those things isn’t working, the countdown starts. Whoever built this thing probably figured it would be manned around the clock and the technicians would fix any run-of-the-mill errors within five minutes, and that anyone trying to sabotage it wouldn’t bother to check for a big countdown clock and would get killed by the failsafe. We got lucky because right now, all the guards in this place are trying to fend off an invasion by pirates.”
“Good thing we watched a lot of cartoons too,” Sasha noted.
“It’s gonna take a few minutes to break this thing beyond repair anyway,” Pilar noted, unslinging a rifle from her shoulder, “Maybe you get to smashing and I’ll watch your six, pick off any goons who try to kill us.”
“I mean… there’s an easier way.” Sasha offered. “You just said that this room is set up with a failsafe that’ll destroy this whole thing. Gimme one of your knives and I’ll slash all the wires, then we both run like hell and let this monument to bad design take care of itself.”
Pilar was silent for a moment. “¡Eres brillante!”
She unsheathed a knife from her hip and handed it to Sasha, who replied “¡Lo sé!”
“So,” Sweettalk said after Dr. Simon had taken several steps towards the pedestal, “here’s what’s really going to happen. You get nothing. You lose.”
“What are you talking about?” Simon replied.
“Kay! You know what to do!”
It was at this point that the girl standing by Ariadne spoke up, in a voice that seemed to echo itself. “Your administrator permissions have been revoked, father.”
Dr. Simon chuckled. “You don’t have the authority to do that.”
“How do you figure?” Sweettalk asked.
“That’s why I made three vessels. The system registers anyone with sufficiently identical memories as a single person, so I made sure they had nearly identical memories.”
“So,” Sweettalk speculated, “You suppose that each clone is only one-third as powerful as yourself in this place.”
Dr. Simon nodded and continued walking towards the box.
“Enough that if any one of them agreed with you, it would provide you with the necessary majority share to break the stalemate and make changes to the system, like letting the two of you change places …”
“Or authorize another administrator,” Ariadne smirked.
Dr. Simon stopped walking. “ …what?”
“Your administrator permissions have been revoked, Mr. Simon,” Ariadne said.
“Says who?” Simon scoffed.
“I said your permissions have been revoked,” Kay insisted.
“Your permissions are revoked!” Ariadne repeated flippantly, “what are you, stupid or something?”
“Haven’t you been listening?” Simon asked, “You would need all three clones to vote in order to make that change, and even then I would be able to override it.”
“That assumes you’re only speaking to one of the clones,” Sweettalk said. “See, out in the real world we’ve been calling them Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow to tell them apart, but when they’re all here together, they register as one person… When they’re all together, we call them Kay.”
“CMYK,” Ariadne laughed, “Our ship’s doctor came up with that one, it’s the nerdiest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
“My god, I love her,” Sweettalk whispered.
“So, this girl here has as much authority as you.”
Dr. Simon let out what sounded like a cross between a cough and a growl. “Even so, you need a majority to strip me of my authority. In the presence of a stalemate, no change is made.”
“We have a majority,” Kay announced. “Ariadne is an administrator.”
“That’s the worst bluff I’ve ever heard,” Simon spat, “obviously I won’t approve that, and in a stalemate—”
“It isn’t a stalemate,” Ariadne laughed, “Your ‘daughters’ proposed the change and you voted in its favor.”
“I did no such—”
“‘If you violate this boundary before we approve the transaction, you give my associate Ariadne permission to take you out.’ That’s what I said,” Sweettalk explained, gesturing at the line in the sand just behind Dr. Simon, “and I don’t recall approving the transaction. When you crossed the line, you authorized her to take you out— something only an administrator could do.”
Simon sputtered a bit. “You said that she would turn her key and I would turn mine and—”
Sweettalk interrupted, “—and your ridiculously overfed ego filled in the blanks yourself. I never said the box would finalize the transaction.”
“Sometimes a box is just a box,” Ariadne pointed out, “we never said it was anything else, it’s not our fault you misinterpreted.”
“I voted for Ariadne to be a new admin before you got here,” Kay smiled triumphantly, “and when you crossed that line, you approved her. Then we didn’t need you to get a majority anymore, and we voted you out of power.”
Sweettalk offered Kay a fist-bump, and it took her a moment to figure out what to do with it. “Man, I’m glad Prescott is cat litter now, but for once I’m glad he taught me how to hustle a grade-A chump.”
“So, here’s what’s really going to happen,” Ariadne said, now practically looming over Dr. Simon, looking more and more like a massive spider by the moment, “this is my world now, and you do not have my permission to run or hide.”
“I don’t need the monologue from you,” Ariadne snapped, “your turn to talk is over. You know, I haven’t been a person of faith for most of my life, and then I actually met a couple of gods. One of them was cruel, the other uncaring. If there is a proper, capital-G ‘God,’ I’d bet they fuck up a lot based on how much the world sucks, but at least they probably care about what we want. You? You don’t hold a candle to any of them.”
Dr Simon opened his mouth to respond, but Ariadne struck him across the face with the back of her hand to prevent this.
“You’re not even a god. You’re a washed-up nobody who wants to take away people’s free will and have them build shrines to you. If you were a cruel god, you’d die like Weaver, if you were an uncaring god, you’d run away like Upendo, and if you were an incompetent god you’d at least have the decency to care about other people, like whatever incompetent god managed to create someone as wonderful as my wife but then put her through hell for over a decade. But you? You’re not a god at all. You’re a wannabe king, and do you know what happens to kings?”
Dr. Simon attempted to run, but he was quickly subdued by a massive silver monster with what appeared to be a middle-aged human female corpse suspended in its machinery.
“I said you don’t have my permission to run, and while you’re in my world, you answer to my demons.” Ariadne sneered. “Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying to run for that transmitter, Mr. Simon—”
“—Like it matters! In 3-2-1—” Ariadne gestured upwards and the sun above the desert flashed a vibrant red and loud klaxons began to sound, “—I can’t believe I timed that out so well! Anyway, that’ll be my wife smashing your exit strategy to bits. You have no way out.”
Dr. Simon started laughing a mirthless cackle.
“Yeah, laugh it up,” Ariadne said, “you’re stuck here.”
“Was it worth it?” Dr. Simon asked.
Ariadne rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My men will tear her to pieces,” Dr. Simon laughed, “and if they don’t get her my failsafe will. You’ve murdered her, my child.”
“Nobody here is your child,” Ariadne replied, “and if anyone could get out of there alive, it’s my girl.”
“We should go,” Sweettalk said, “we don’t want to be here when, uh… Did you explain what happens to kings when the peasants get restless?”
Ariadne laughed, “You know, I don’t think I did! Do you remember all those people whose bodies you stole, Mr. Simon? Well, your majesty, I think your subjects want an audience with you! Toodles!”
The three girls vanished from the desert and Simon fell to his knees in the sand. He heard distant footsteps and suddenly realized, for the first time in his life, he was completely powerless.
“Plus, you do a great job with number four…” Sasha’s mildly distorted voice came through the haze.
As the virtual world swirled away and the real world came back into focus, Ariadne watched Sasha burst in through the door with Pilar slung over her shoulder.
“I need your help,” Sasha shouted, “she’s been shot!”
“You always have to prove me wrong!” Ariadne rushed over and immediately took Pilar onto her own shoulder, “you are not allowed to die.”
“You two have been spending too much time together” Pilar sputtered.
Chapter 29: Chapter 29 -- The Hypocritical Oath
Several minutes earlier, Pilar and Sasha had just severed every wire they could see coming out of the transmitter, causing some truly abrasive alarms to ring through the facility.
Elsewhere in the facility, there were several dozen fanatically devoted men with guns that had, up to this point, been occupied by the Whiptails. When the alarms sounded, they retreated immediately to seek out the cause of the alarm. Due to their fanatical devotion to Dr. Simon’s cause, to them, protecting Dr. Simon’s escape route was more important to them than their own lives, so they believed that many of them would likely be killed in the attempt to retreat. They were fine with this, so long as at least some of them made it to the transmitter to stop whatever sabotage had been inflicted upon it.
What they did not expect was that Spacebreather, by herself, was far more dangerous than the rest of the Whiptails put together. The majority of the Whiptails had been carefully trained to use only non-lethal force, while Spacebreather was more than willing to kill when necessary, and absolutely overqualified to do so for a person her age. They failed to understand that the men attempting to retreat would be the most likely to live another day, while the men attempting to stop Pilar had likely signed their own death warrant.
Inside the transmitter room, Sasha and Pilar were preparing to fight their way out. Both of them had the same job in this fight: keep the other alive. Sasha kept Pilar alive by immediately patching up any wounds she might receive, and Pilar kept Sasha alive by seriously injuring anyone who attempted to hurt Sasha before they managed to do so.
This was how they had functioned whenever they fought side by side in their pirate careers. This was the first time they’d ever been forced to break this mold.
Approximately 8 seconds after they’d cut the wire, as they prepared to descend from the platform, three dozen armed men stormed into the room. Pilar, having prepared for this possibility, flipped backwards over the ledge and, on the way to the ground, drew two short knives from the strap on her thigh.
She landed on top of one of the men, breaking his neck and killing him instantly. She ensured that the two knives landed directly in the top of two other goons’ skulls. Both of these men were carrying automatic weapons, both of which were in Pilar’s hands by the time her feet touched the ground. She was skilled at avoiding gunfire, having had a lot of practice. Her movements almost looked like a ballet, and none of the projectiles managed to touch her, yet.
She fired six shots from each of her weapons. Twelve headshots in less than a second, a new personal best for her. For a moment, she pondered that she would have to add a tally mark for each of these men to the tattoo on her arm, and hoped she never had so many tally marks that she ran out of space for them.
One of the goons took this moment as an opportunity to throw a plasma grenade in Pilar’s direction. It, unfortunately, would not prove to be the opportunity he expected it to be, as Pilar was fast enough to hit the grenade back at him with the barrel of her rifle. This was unfortunate for this particular henchman for obvious reasons, but since he was wearing a bandolier of other explosives across his chest, it was also unfortunate for the eight henchmen standing closest to him, as all the explosives detonated at once, bringing a quick end to nine more functionally identical henchmen.
“Pilar, catch!” Sasha called down from the ledge. Both sisters were hoping she wouldn’t have to leave her relatively safe cover in order to treat an injury. Both sisters would consequently shortly be disappointed.
Pilar instinctively reached a hand out to catch whatever Sasha had thrown without looking, a skill they’d developed over years of unexpectedly throwing things at each other for kicks. She caught something heavy and apparently made of metal, wrapped in leather.
“Is this…” Pilar asked, ducking behind a pillar to unsheath it, “Where did you find a machete?”
“It was on one of the guards we knocked out on the way in!”
They were only unconscious, but they had no intention of moving them out of the chamber before the failsafe went off, which by Pilar’s best guess was about three minutes and thirty seconds away, so she made a mental note to add two more tally marks to her tattoo.
“Why did he have a machete?” Pilar called back.
“I’m not his mom!” Sasha replied from the balcony, “I don’t really have any more information on that than you do!”
This was a satisfactory answer to Pilar. “Thanks, sis!” Pilar said, unsheathing the large blade and rustling in her pocket until she found a small, round object which she threw to the ground where it exploded with a snap, creating a dense cloud of thick, gray, pungent smoke. Before it cleared, she lunged towards the crowd of remaining henchmen and managed to cut eight throats in only two strokes.
Eight more tally marks.
She then managed to run three of them through with the machete before the smoke fully cleared.
Pilar quickly tried to count her kills, to see how many hostiles were remaining with her visibility impaired. She got through the following thought process in less than a second:
We took out two on the way in then there were thirty-six oh my god have I killed thirty-six people today no there were more I killed some of the guards on the surface this shouldn’t be this easy for me stay focused, thirty-eight hostiles total, two killed on the way in, three more on landing, twelve headshots, that’s seventeen total, then nine more with the grenades, that’s twenty-six, eight slit throats, thirty-four, skewered three more, so that’s thirty-sev—-
It was at this point that one of the rounds fired blindly by the lone remaining henchman managed to find its place, by pure random chance, in Spacebreather’s right shoulder.
“PILAR!” Sasha screamed, and bounded out from behind cover. Sasha had never been a particularly violent person, but when she saw Pilar go down from behind cover, her entire field of vision flashed red and when she came to a second later, she was holding a knife in her left hand, which was wet and warm. She opened her eyes and saw the knife in her hand was also embedded deep in the last henchman’s throat. Her hand was soaked with blood. She had no idea where she’d gotten the knife; she certainly didn’t have it on the balcony. There was an open wound on her right arm where a bullet had grazed her on the way down. This was the first person Sasha ever killed.
She didn’t have time to be traumatized yet, so she resolved to do that later and rushed to her sister’s side.
“You…” Pilar whimpered, “did you just… kill a guy?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” Sasha said calmly, “let’s focus on getting you out of here alive, okay?”
“S-serum,” Pilar sputtered.
“It’s not gonna work on this,” Sasha replied as calmly as her impending panic attack would allow, “not until we get that bullet out of you.”
‘Wh—” Pilar started.
“What kind of asshole uses a physical bullet in this day and age? Good question, I have no idea. Thankfully he has a knife in his throat now,” Sasha tried to keep pressure on the wound and get Pilar over her shoulder. “Come on, we just gotta get you out of here and I can dig that bullet out and then pump you full of serum.”
“Leave me,” Pilar gasped.
“Out of the question,” Sasha replied. “You’ve survived worse than this.”
“Two minutes,” Pilar coughed up blood. “No use in us both dying.”
Sasha looked her sister directly in the eyes as severely as she could. “Don’t be a drama queen,” she said, looking to Pilar as much like their father as she’d seen since the day they lost him, “I just got you back, and I’m not leaving you here.”
“No,” Pilar cried, “no, I won’t have you die because of me, just live your life, keep going strong, keep whatever it is that’s—”
Sasha didn’t need to glance at the clock to know there were only about 45 seconds left. “We don’t have time to argue. As your next of kin, I’m authorizing your doctor to make this decision on your behalf. You’re not allowed to die, so, I’m sorry. This is going to hurt.”
“It already—” Pilar was cut off mid-sentence by Sasha throwing her over her shoulder fireman-style with a roughness that was not by any stretch of the imagination medically advisable, but at this point Sasha felt having a living sister with treatable injuries was better than having a dead sister with only one injury.
They escaped the room approximately fifteen seconds before the failsafe went off, destroying the transmitter completely and wiping away any evidence of the thirty-eight henchmen who’d died attempting to kill them. Sasha and Pilar watched the blue glow eradicate everything in the room, just to be sure their task had been successful, and then they hobbled their way down to the room where they knew Ariadne and Sweettalk to be. Sasha held Pilar’s sidearm in her right hand. She was naturally left-handed, but her left arm was currently supporting someone who was surprisingly heavy for her thin frame.
Pilar noticed the gash on Sasha’s upper arm. “You’re hurt.”
“Just think of it as my first, and hopefully only, tally-mark.”
Pilar’s heart dropped. “You killed a guy,” she said sadly.
“You’re welcome, Sasha, for saving my life,” Sasha smirked sarcastically.
“Isn’t that, like, against the Hypocritical oath?”
“Heh,” Sasha replied.
“It’s the Hippocratic oath.”
“Whatever oath,” Pilar groaned.
“‘First, do no harm,’” Sasha pondered, “I don’t remember taking any oath.”
Pilar laughed, which was painful. “What kind of crappy medical school did you go to?”
“Homeschooled,” Sasha laughed, “I said I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up and my sister’s nerdy girlfriend stole me a bunch of medical supplies and textbooks the next day.”
“She sounds hot,” Spacebreather chuckled as lightly as she could without disturbing the bullet lodged in her shoulder, “think you could introduce me?”
“She’s just down the hall,” Sasha could see the door from here, “just get down the hall… of course, you can’t just learn from textbook. My idiot big sister kept getting herself hurt so I had a lot of hands-on practice.”
They both laughed, and it had been a long time since they had really genuinely laughed together like this. It would have been a perfect moment had it not quickly devolved into a coughing fit from Pilar.
“You always took good care of me,” Pilar’s speech was sounding somewhat slurred.
“Hey, stay with me! Just a little bit longer,” Sasha said, “I’ve still gotta take care of you for a long time, okay? I gotta introduce you to that nerd I was telling you about.”
“I love her,” Pilar muttered, “I don’t tell her that enough.”
“Shut up,” Sasha said, “you tell her all the time You have a shirt that says ‘I love my girlfriend’ on it.”
Pilar groaned. “Half the people on the crew have that shirt.”
“Well, there’s a lot of love on our crew,” Sasha explained, “and if you can get like… 50 more feet, the girls we love are right through that door and you can tell her you love her all you want.”
“I’m gonna kiss her,” Pilar muttered.
“You’d better,” Sasha said, “she’ll kill me if she doesn’t get to kiss you again.”
“She’s an amazing kisser,” Pilar slurred.
“That’s really none of my business,” Sasha started.
“I’m proud of you,” Pilar was barely intelligible. “You… she’s really good for you… she really is…”
“Mgrmph,” Pilar agreed.
“I always thought you didn’t really like her.”
“I didn’t,” Pilar sounded drowsy. It was clear that even with the serum, she was going to need a blood transfusion, “because she was… cocky… smooth-talking… arrogant… I never would’ve gotten to know her if you two didn’t…”
“Stay with me, sis, we’re so close.”
“Now I could… we could be friends… I was wrong about her… She wasn’t… she…”
“She’ll be glad to hear you say that,” Sasha tried to pick up the pace a little, “but she’ll never believe me, so you’d better stay with me long enough to tell her yourself. Remember, you are not allowed to die.”
“What do you want to know?” Sasha asked, focusing only on the door.
“Tell me what… you love… why do you love her…”
“She’s smart,” Sasha said, “way too smart, and so fun.”
“And yes, she’s an amazing kisser,” Sasha said.
Pilar coughed again. “No… not that… something real…”
Sasha considered this “She’s thoughtful, she’s always getting me little gifts. This robe… well, you’re gonna see it in a few minutes… She’s deep, but she doesn’t like people to know that. And when we’re alone… she’s so sweet that I know she’ll never leave me, even when everyone else is convinced that she betrayed us to the cops to save her own skin, I know she’ll come back for me because…”
Pilar was fading fast. “Because…?”
“Because we can’t live without each other. With all both of us have been through, for me to meet the love of my life so young? I know God put us together for a reason.”
“Don’t let Ariadne hear you say that…”
“Ariadne is the only atheist I know who’s met two different gods,” Sasha rolled her eyes, “you landed the most stubborn girl in the universe.”
“God, I love her so much…”
They were perhaps ten feet from the door now, and Sasha seemed determined to keep talking so that Pilar could focus on her voice and stay conscious. “And I guess I’m not a very good Catholic, I’m pretty sure I just broke the first commandment saying that. And, uh, number five, back there in the, uh… wow, I am gonna need to do a lot of rosaries.”
Pilar chuckled without adding anything to this.
“What’s so funny?” Sasha asked.
“Yes, we’re pirates. Good memory.”
“No, we… I mean, number seven.”
“Thou shalt not steal? Yeah, I guess we do kinda break that one pretty often,” Sasha said with a great deal of guilt, something all too common amongst those raised Catholic, “I think we’re still good people, though.”
“You are,” Pilar mumbled. “Ariadne too. Sweettalk. Not me… I’m going to hell for sure.”
“I’m pretty sure God will let a few broken commandments go if we were doing it to save hungry and abused children, that’s… kinda his whole deal,” Sasha dropped the sidearm to the ground and struggled to open the door single-handed, “plus, you do a great job with number four.”
They entered the room as Ariadne, Sweettalk, and the Triplets were coming out of the virtual interface. With as much urgency as she could muster, Sasha called to them: “I need your help, she’s been shot!”
“You always have to prove me wrong!” Ariadne rushed over and immediately took Pilar onto her own shoulder so Sasha could get to work on digging the bullet out, “you are not allowed to die.”
“You two have been spending too much time together” Pilar sputtered.
Sasha took out a strip of black fabric and lay it over Pilar’s wound. The fabric swirled and shimmered silver and gold for a moment before the silver parts settled into the shape of the ribcage beneath the skin, and the gold settled into the shape of a bullet, lodged between two ribs, near the heart.
“Is that … the robe I got you?” Sweettalk asked. “You dork, I thought you were kidding about the medical applications of it!”
“Gimme your knife,” Sasha demanded, and Sweettalk complied immediately.
Two minutes later, with the help of their loved ones, the bullet was out. Another minute later, Pilar had taken a dose of the serum and the bullet wound had healed completely.
Chapter 30: Chapter 30 -- The Ride Home
Pilar and Sweettalk lay on parallel hospital beds, and Sasha stood between them.
“So,” she said to Pilar, “you’re going to need to eat a much larger than usual dinner when we get back tonight. The serum is medicine, it’s not a magic potion, and regenerating wounds that serious will have taken a lot out of you.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to cope with having seconds at dinner,” Pilar said sarcastically.
“And thirds,” Sasha insisted, “and fourths. I don’t think you really understand just how shot you got.”
“You said I’d survived worse!”
“I lied! You were trying to get me to leave you on the floor of an exploding room, I would’ve said Jesus himself was waiting to heal you if it would’ve gotten you out of there in time.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m not dead,” Pilar conceded, “so, thanks, sis.”
“I’m glad you’re not dead too, although I’m sure you’re going to test me on that,” Sasha replied. “You know, you really should be thanking Sweettalk. Universal donor. If she hadn’t been here, even with the serum you’d be dead.”
“O Negative!” Sweettalk said cheerfully, “so, what do I get to eat? I mean, she’s got all my blood, do I get something good?”
Sasha reached into the pocket of her scrubs, took out a small pad of paper, wrote something down on it, tucked it into the front of Sweettalk’s shirt, and left the room.
Sweettalk excitedly read the note, secretly hoping for some kind of double entendre, although these hopes would be quickly dashed. “A note that says ‘I Gave Blood?’ That’s it?”
At this exact moment, Sasha returned and tossed Sweettalk a juicebox and cookie.
“YESSSSS,” Sweettalk smiled widely and began unwrapping her snack. “You know… I heard about all those nice things you said about me.”
“You know what?” Pilar said, “I changed my mind, put the bullet back in.”
“She can’t do that,” Sweettalk said, “Hypocritical oath.”
Sasha sighed deeply. “Am I going to regret making you two into friends?”
“Probably,” both Pilar and Sweettalk replied.
“Hey, uh,” Alicia poked her head in, “Are we almost ready to take off?”
“Should be soon. Uprising and the girls are outside loading the last of the stuff in the ship. Some museum is gonna be thrilled to have this stuff. And I think Ariadne is talking to Kay.”
“Cool cool,” Alicia replied. “You know, we really ought to take some shore leave after this. I got a couple of nieces back on Earth I feel compelled to spoil, and I’m sure they want to meet their Pirate Aunties too. Sweettalk, you ever been to Earth?”
“Never,” Sweettalk shrugged. “Is it nice?”
“I hated it growing up, but something about spending ten years away really makes you miss a place. You never know how much you want to go home until you can’t go back, you know?”
“I think I do,” Sweettalk replied wistfully.
“So it’s settled,” Alicia said, “Triple date, Ariadne and Spacebreather, Deathsbane and Sweettalk, my little sister and that goddess she somehow convinced to marry her, we’re taking a trip to earth to visit the babies, get some home cooking, and find your friend Alicia a date because she spends all her time in a floating high school.”
“That seems fair,” Spacebreather replied. “Is your sister a good cook? Mine says I have to eat four dinners tonight.”
“Flax will be cooking.”
“So we know it’ll be good,” Pilar shrugged.
“Who’s Flax?” Sweettalk asked.
“Someone whose first conversation with you I’ll be sure to record,” Sasha laughed.
“I’m glad you’ll be staying with us,” Ariadne said to Kay, whose synchronized movements across three bodies were still fairly unsettling, “I’m excited that I get to help you get to know yourself.”
“I’m glad Fate has delivered me to you.”
“Oh, here we go. After all of that?”
Kay gently smiled her triple-smile. “My father was a false prophet, and an evil man, and he is suffering for it in a hell of his own creation. But, our time together has given me… clarity, in a way that is somewhat… difficult to express to the single-minded.”
“So what, you’re going to tell me that you still believe there’s some all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect being that claims to love us but still puts us through all that shit?”
“Not at all. But, I believe in the inherent goodness of the universe. It delivered me to you. It delivered you to the love of your life, who is alive now because by pure random chance, her sister’s girlfriend happened to have a compatible blood type.”
“Yeah,” Ariadne replied, “the thing is, though, if any of this was by design, it’s also the one who put you with that monster in the first place. It threw me and my girl together by killing her parents and turning mine into monsters. It saved Spacebreather’s life, but didn’t it also shoot her?”
“And you wanted me dead, when you first saw me,” Kay replied. “Amazing how something so good can come out of such a terrible mistake.”
Ariadne was intensely uncomfortable. “Well, I’m glad we didn’t end up making that mistake. So are you… uh… like that forever now?”
Kay thought for a moment. “I think not. The entity called Kay has served its function for the time being. I think soon enough these three girls will each find their own identities, and I look forward to being those girls.”
Kay giggled, which was somewhat disconcerting coming from three glowing bodies in unison, but at the same time really made Ariadne suddenly remember the girls’ age.
“I never had a childhood,” Kay laughed.
“Okay, we’re going to have to revisit your definition of ‘funny.’”
“No, I mean, my whole life I’ve been nothing but a tool. I’ve never gotten to just be a kid. Now I get to be three!”
Ariadne chuckled. “I guess that is kinda funny, isn’t it? I’m glad we got to meet, Kay.”
“Me too,” Kay replied, and gave Ariadne what would, under normal circumstances, be considered a group hug. By the time the hug was over, the glow in the three girls had subsided and they all came away looking like relatively normal teenage girls. By this point, their systems had integrated so well with the cybernetics that it would be pointless to try to tell which parts had been replaced.
“You girls are members of my crew now, and I already have my first orders for you as your captain. When we get home, you’re going to spend every day trying new things until you all know what you like and what you don’t.”
“We can handle that,” Cyan replied.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Magenta said.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Yellow answered.
Ariadne gave them another hug and dismissed them. When she was sure they were gone, she settled into a large cushioned chair, took out one of the burner holo-phones from a compartment in the shuttle, and dialed up a number she’d called so often it had become second nature.
After two rings, the face of a striking but kind-looking black woman in her thirties, with her hair tied in two braids along the top of her head began flickering a few inches above the holo-phone.
“Sovereign Upendo,” Ariadne’s voice took on a much more serious tone, “It’s been a while.”
“Not long enough,” Upendo said nervously. “I can’t be seen talking to you. Make this quick.”
“Can’t be seen talking to me, can’t be seen publicly supporting me… You wound me, Peace!”
“I am the leader of a major government,” Upendo replied in what can only be described as a hushed scold, “you can not address me by my first name. What do you need?”
“I’m asking for a favor.”
“Absolutely not. Not again. It was bad enough the last time. I’ve never encountered darkness like that in a—”
“Relax, it’ll be nothing like the last time. You’re going to be getting briefed on the alleged mass-suicide of a far-right religious cult in a few minutes. I just need you to tell them that I contacted you, and share a little recording I’ve made to set the record straight. Maybe don’t tell them how often we help each other out behind the scenes. I mean, you and I have seen how much good a recorded confession can do firsthand, haven’t we?”
Upendo sighed loudly. “Fine. Send your recording, just, make it quick.”
“Sending it your way now.”
“Did you send it?” Spacebreather asked from her bed when Ariadne walked in the room.
“Yeah, it’ll be going out system-wide any minute now. Did Alicia suggest shore leave?”
“Vacation at Baltimore and Beam’s, eat Flaxy’s cooking, spoil the twins rotten, get Alicia laid.” Spacebreather replied.
“Sounds like a dream,” Ariadne said, hopping up onto the hospital bed and nestling comfortably into Spacebreather’s arms, “You know once this video goes out, I’m going to be law enforcement’s most wanted on Earth, right? Gonna be hard to take shore leave there with my face on every wanted poster.”
“Alicia’s very good at disguises,” Spacebreather replied, “she turned Sasha into me.”
“Yeah, like that’s a stretch,” Ariadne said, laughing.
“She’ll change your hair, give you a new set of glasses, nobody will recognize you. You’ll be like that guy from old myths.”
“No, the guy Baltimore never shuts up about. The cape guy. Shield on his chest.”
This made Ariadne laugh, and she kissed Spacebreather on the lips. “Te amo.”
Spacebreather smiled. “Lo sé.”
Unbeknownst to Ariadne and Spacebreather, Sasha and Sweettalk were just outside the door, and witnessed that exchange.
“Promise me we’ll be like that someday?” Sasha asked, and Sweettalk hugged her tight.
“Absolutely not,” Sweettalk said. “We’re gonna be even better. We’re gonna kick their asses at love.”
Sasha smiled. “You always say the right thing.”
Sweettalk shrugged. “It’s what I do!”
They too kissed, although Sweettalk was slick enough to close the door to avoid being observed, leaving them alone in the dark hallway.
“You know,” Sweettalk said, “now that your sister knows and seems pretty unlikely to poison my food, we don’t really need to sneak around anymore.”
Sasha thought on this for about half a second. “I actually kinda like sneaking around.”
Sweettalk smiled wide. “That’s my girl. Movie night tonight?”
“You know it,” Sasha grinned.
The ship made its way back to their station. Ariadne, Spacebreather, Sweettalk, Deathsbane, and the triplets got off the ship first, followed by the crew. Cookie had a feast waiting for them when they got back, with a banner that read “CONGRATULATIONS,” but clearly also said “MY CONDOLENCES” on the opposite side, just in case the mission was not a success.
Pilar ate her medically mandated dinners, and after the crew had eaten their fill, everyone else retired to either the game room or their own quarters for the evening. Ariadne and Pilar resolved to get a proper night’s sleep for the first time in weeks before going on shore leave. The Triplets spent most of the evening in the game room, trying out different games. Sasha managed to sneak into Mingxia’s room in the middle of the night to watch a very old movie about a hitman with a heart of gold that really reminded them of someone they knew, and for the first time, Sasha didn’t feel the need to sneak back to her own quarters. They had fallen asleep watching the movie, which they agreed simply meant they’d have to try watching it again later. It was the first time in years that everyone on the station had fallen asleep happy, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Chapter 31: Epilogue -- The Record Set Straight
Some Time Later
“People of our fine system,” said Ariadne, the real Ariadne, on the video that had been practically looping on every news station for the past month, “My name is Ariadne, the dread pirate, and this is my confession.”
“By now you will have heard about the mass suicide of the Red God cult on Mars. This is a lie. You see, the Red God cult you saw was a front for something far more sinister. They were a paramilitary organization run by a disgraced lunatic named Dr. C. Alexander Simon, trying to use science and technology to create a fascist state of mind-controlled drones, with himself as its immortal leader. He thought that free will was something that needed to be cured, and that humanity would prosper if individual human beings were made incapable of behaving outside his warped morality framework. He brainwashed your friends and loved ones, and used the promise of the fabled Ariadne to bring in new ‘converts.’ But, he made two mistakes:
First, he didn’t expect for there to be a real Ariadne. Now, I know a lot of you thought I was an urban legend, and I was okay with letting you think that, after all, it’s hard to catch someone nobody’s really sure actually exists, but I take great pride in being a folk hero and I couldn’t have some impostor ruining my good name, which brings me to mistake #2:
That cult brainwashed and abused children, and when I found out about that, I knew something had to be done. That’s why my crew stormed their fortress, rescued the children, and slaughtered their abusers. Every single member of their organization who acted of their own free will is now dead. Dr. Simon is now dead.
Anyone who had friends or relatives fall victim to their mind control, you have been tricked into believing your loved ones are dead as well. Go ahead and cancel the funeral. Even if you’ve seen a body, they’re alive, and they miss you very much, and as soon as we are able, they will be returned to you, although… don’t be surprised if they seem a little more, shall we say, mechanical at first.
Meantime, I advise you not to waste your time trying to catch me. I’ll be doing what I always do, taking from people who have too much and giving to people who don’t have enough, until the day I die, and the only person in the universe good enough to stop me is fighting by my side. The only difference now is that you know I’m real, that I’m watching, and most importantly, you know what I’m capable of if I find out you’ve laid a hand on a child.
Bye now!” Ariadne waved and the face flickered away, a gruff looking white news anchor with a gray mustache taking her place.
“That was, once again, the video of the alleged fabled pirate Ariadne, claiming responsibility for the recent deaths of several hundred cultists and assuring the public that their recently deceased relatives will be returning from the grave. Now, Leanne, does that sound possible to you? Sounds awfully far fetched to me.”
The hologram panned out to reveal a second reporter, one possibly too attractive to be remarkable. “Well Jim, I thought so too, but we have been getting reports of relatives taken in by the Red God cult years ago suddenly returning home. NewMo News 7’s own Solomon Cho has returned unharmed after disappearing a few months ago while investigating the group. Solomon, what can you tell us about what happened to you?”
The hologram suddenly switched off. “I said, no news,” Flax insisted as she approached the poolside with a tray of recently grilled cheeseburgers. “Aren’t you sick of your own voice by now?”
Ariadne laughed. “How else am I supposed to see my normal face?” Truly, Alicia had done an amazing job, with only a new pair of glasses and a specialized hair growth formula she and Sasha had developed together, Ariadne now had much longer hair, which Alicia was currently braiding into cornrows.
“I’m surprised you aren’t sick of that, too.” Flax said. “You’re not going to swim for an hour after eating that, right?”
There was, at this point, a large splash in the pool as Sweettalk was knocked underwater by Spacebreather.
“Best three out of five!” Sweettalk shouted when she resurfaced. “You have an unfair advantage, she’s like, freakishly strong.”
“Look, I can play chicken as long as you can,” Pilar replied from atop Beam’s shoulders, “but I’m going to tell you right now, the Spacebreathers can’t be beat at chicken.”
“Don’t worry,” Sasha said very seriously, allowing Sweettalk to get on her shoulders again, “I have a plan for this one.”
“What kind of plan?” Sweettalk replied.
“I’m not going to fall down and you’re going to push harder than her.”
“That’s… really not a plan, you’re just… describing how the game is played.” Sweettalk said.
“Yeah,” Sasha responded just as seriously, “do that this time.”
Baltimore sat down next to Ariadne and Alicia. “Beam!” She called, “If you don’t win, we’re getting a divorce!”
“You already know I’m going to win!” Beam called back.
“Yeah!” Baltimore said, “Look, some of us weren’t cheerleaders in high school, this sort of thing is more your strong suit!”
“I’m glad they worked things out,” Alicia said to Baltimore, “I mean, a rift between sisters, we know that’s not the easiest thing to repair.”
“I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about,” Baltimore replied. “I wasn’t there for, like, any of what happened.”
“I mean, when I came back, it took a while to win that trust back. That’s why I call every day, you know?”
Baltimore burst out laughing. “You are too stupid, you know that?”
“What?!” Alicia said, accidentally yanking a few of Ariadne’s hairs out.
“Ow!” Ariadne jumped in.
“Sorry sweetie, you gotta keep your head still while I’m doing this.” Alicia replied. “I’m stupid for what, calling you up?”
“No, dummy, I was really just glad to have you back. Once I found out where you’d gone I pretty much forgave you right away.”
“Well,” Alicia looked confused, “I still think I gave pretty good advice.”
“You definitely did, Baltimore’s Sister.” Ariadne said through a mouthful of burger.
Baltimore laughed and gave Alicia a friendly punch on the arm.
“Ey Beam!” Baltimore shouted, “Just drop her in the pool and come get a burger already, I miss your face!”
“Do not drop m--” Pilar said plainly as she was dropped directly into the water. Baltimore was waiting for Beam with a towel when she got out of the pool, and greeted her with a tender kiss.
“Hey,” Beam said as flirtily as she could, “where’s my burger.”
“Ugh,” Baltimore said, “you ruined a good moment.”
Beam considered this. “It would all be worth it if I had a burger, though.”
Baltimore rolled her eyes, handed Beam a burger on a paper plate, kissed her again, and said “I’m gonna go check on the kids.”
“I’m getting a burger too,” Alicia said, “do not move your head while I’m gone. I’ll know if you moved your head.”
“So,” Sweettalk swam up to the edge with Sasha loosely hanging her arms around her neck and drifting behind her, as Pilar got out of the pool and dried off, “your friends seem to have a really happy life here.”
“They really do,” Ariadne replied, “they deserve it, and I’m glad they have it, but I’m not gonna lie, I could never do this.”
Pilar sat down next to Ariadne and quietly stole a bite of her burger, instead of walking ten feet to get her own. “Me neither,” said Pilar with the bite of stolen burger still in her mouth.
“You know what they say,” Ariadne mused, “do what you love and love what you do.”
“And love who you do it with,” Pilar added.
“Yes, that too,” Ariadne nodded, “and I’m just more cut out for the life I’ve got. I love what I do, I love who I do it with.”
“You don’t ever get tired of it?” Sweettalk asked.
“Sometimes,” Ariadne replied, “but it wears off pretty quick. I mean, I could never stop. What I believe in is that the good people are supposed to be rewarded and the bad people are supposed to be punished, and nobody seems to get what they deserve unless somebody gives it to them. So, until the universe starts doing its job, I’m gonna keep fixing things for good people and breaking them for bad people.”
“Yo ho,” Pilar agreed. Ariadne saw Baltimore and Beam come out of the house, each carrying one very sleepy-looking toddler, both of whom were far too young to swim and had inflatable floaties on their arms seemingly just for decoration, and they sat down in the shade and began feeding the babies, and each other, french fries.
“Good people always get tired of being good, but bad people never seem to get tired of being bad,” Ariadne thought, lying back on the soft towel behind her, “so, that’s what I want out of life. That’s the kind of person I need to be. I want a good person’s compassion with a bad person’s patience. Keep doing good even when it’s easier to do bad, and try my best to make the bad people feel as tired as I am.”
Ariadne took in the warm, gentle rays of the sun, surrounded by the people she loved most in the universe. At her side was the woman she knew she would spend the rest of her life with, whether that was one day or a hundred years, who she could only hope understood the depth and passion with which she was loved.
A few feet away were two girls who’d known some of the deepest tragedies a child could know, who’d grown up to be the sweetest, kindest, most intelligent young women the system had ever seen.
Standing at the grill was the first authority figure she’d ever truly respected, handing a burger to someone who’d devoted her life to Ariadne’s crew just because she believed in the cause, whose patience and unfailing loyalty had meant everything to Ariadne in the years they’d known each other, and at a small table in the shade were two women who’d become like sisters to Ariadne, who showed her how intensely two people could love one another, whose marriage she had officiated and whose children she loved as though they were her own.
Right then, she could have combined all the misery she’d experienced in her entire life and it would still only be the smallest fraction of the joy she was feeling at that particular moment.
The universe can be a good place, she thought, and if I’ve got anything to say about it, it’s damn sure going to be.